DES MOINES, Iowa - There were no lights, no cameras, no studio audience, and not much in the way of fireworks.
In a radio-only debate broadcast nationally by National Public Radio, seven Democratic candidates spent two hours yesterday afternoon discussing three topics: policy toward Iran, relations with China, and immigration.
And there was far more agreement than disagreement.
The field did use the conversation about Iran as an opportunity to go after the front-runner, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The subject, a familiar one in this campaign, was her Sept. 26 vote in favor of a nonbinding resolution labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group and authorizing economic sanctions against it.
Clinton was asked whether the National Intelligence Estimate made public Monday, which indicated that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003, had caused her to rethink that vote.
She said that it had not, that she saw her vote as a call for aggressive diplomacy rather than "a rush to war," and that she thought the resolution had resulted in less Iranian-backed violence in Iraq. "I think we've actually seen the positive effects of having labeled them a terrorist organization," Clinton said, "because it did change their behavior."
Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and voted against the resolution, challenged her assertion.
"There's no evidence - none, zero - that this has caused any charge in behavior by the Iranian government," said Biden, who, along with Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd among the candidates, voted against the resolution.
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said he wanted listeners to know that "there's a real division here. Among the Democratic candidates, there's only one who voted for this resolution, which was exactly what Bush and Cheney wanted."
Clinton called the charge that she had done the administration's bidding "outlandish."
All the candidates joined in saying that the intelligence estimate demonstrated that the Bush administration has been wrong to threaten military action against Iran rather than pursue diplomatic options.
"You cannot trust this president; he is untrustworthy," Biden said. Of the White House approach to Iran, he said: "It is outrageous, intolerable, and it must stop."
On immigration, the candidates, while supporting tougher sanctions on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers, agreed that American citizens should not be expected to report individuals they suspect are illegally in the country.
"We're not going to deputize a whole bunch of American citizens to start grabbing people and turning them in," said Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
On China, the candidates joined in saying the administration had failed to use its leverage against the Chinese government on such issues as currency manipulation, human rights, trade policy, and product safety.
When Edwards was asked whether he would give his children Chinese-made toys this Christmas, Dodd jumped in: "My toys are coming from Iowa - Iowa toys."
The first-in-the-nation caucuses will take place in Iowa on Jan. 3.
In her recent campaign appearances, Clinton has been attacking Obama often, saying that his health-care proposal is not truly universal and calling his record in the Senate that of a "talker, not a doer."
But the format yesterday was not conducive to continuing the attacks, and Clinton did not force the issue.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska also participated in the debate. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson did not. He chose instead to go to Independence, Iowa, for the funeral of Army Cpl. Clem Boody. Boody was killed in 1950 during the Korean War, and Richardson, who went to North Korea last spring, helped secure the retrieval of his remains.
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