In their final debate before the voting begins, six Democratic presidential candidates showed yesterday how little they disagreed on the major issues in this election.

During their 90-minute, nationally televised encounter, they found common ground on ending the war in Iraq, doing away with the Bush administration's tax cuts for the wealthy, providing universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds, and moving as rapidly as possible toward energy independence.

As was the case in the Republican version Wednesday, the debate format discouraged sniping among the participants. The back-to-back debates were sponsored by the Des Moines Register and held at the studios of Iowa Public Television in Johnston.

One moment of rancor did surface when the moderator, Register editor Carolyn Washburn, asked Illinois Sen. Barack Obama how he intended to provide "a break with the past" in foreign policy when he was relying on veterans of the Clinton administration for foreign-policy advice.

Before he could answer, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton let out a loud laugh and said: "I'm looking forward to hearing that."

"Hillary," Obama replied, "I'm looking forward to you advising me as well."

Obama went on to say that he wanted to change what he called "the mind-set that got us into the war" in Iraq. Policy-makers, he said, should remember that military might is just one element of U.S. power on the world stage.

Clinton, Obama, and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards are engaged in a close fight for first place in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, which begin the national delegate-selection process.

Aside from the one Clinton-Obama exchange, the candidates were largely content to express their own views on the questions raised, without critiquing one another's responses or records.

On several occasions, Clinton sought to associate herself with the successes of her husband's years as president, saying she would seek to restore the "fiscal responsibility" of the 1990s and restore the tax rates that were in place during that period.

Edwards used every opportunity to highlight the main theme of his campaign - the need to break the power that corporate interests and lobbyists have on the policy-making process in Washington. "We have an epic battle in front of us," he said.

All of the candidates called for the next president to use the bully pulpit to kick-start a move toward new, renewable energy sources by raising mileage standards for motor vehicles and creating economic incentives (or imposing new taxes) to reduce fossil-fuel emissions.

Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. said that energy independence ought to be "a moral crusade" and that the American people would have to make sacrifices for a few years while the economy adjusted to new realities.

On managing government spending, all of the candidates concurred that the next president must do a better job than President Bush.

Alone among the group, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson advocated constitutional amendments to give the president a line-item veto and require a balanced federal budget except in time of war or economic depression. Richardson pointed out that governors must balance their state budgets.

This prompted a mild rebuke from Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, who said the federal budget was "much more complicated than state budgets." The president's priority, Dodd said, ought to be "growing our economy, giving people a sense of confidence again."

Two candidates, U.S. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, were not allowed to participate in the debate. Organizers said the two men had failed to meet entrance standards, which included having at least one paid staff member working in Iowa.

The Kucinich campaign has a paid staffer in Iowa, although that individual works out of a home office. Said Kucinich aide Andy Juniewicz: "This is a disgraceful display of elitist arrogance and journalistic manipulation of the democratic process."

Clinton Aide Out After Obama Dig

A top adviser

to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton resigned yesterday, a day after suggesting Democrats should be wary of nominating

Sen. Barack Obama because his drug use as a teenager could make it hard for him to win the presidency.

Clinton apologized

to Obama as they waited at Washington's Reagan National Airport yesterday morning to fly to Iowa for a debate.

Bill Shaheen,

a national cochairman for Clinton, had raised the issue during a Wednesday interview, published on washingtonpost.com.

Shaheen, an attorney

, veteran organizer and husband of former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, had said much of Obama's background was unknown and could be a problem in November.

"It'll be, 'When was the last time?' " Shaheen said. "There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome."

Clinton spokesman Jay Carson said: "Having been on the receiving

end of unfair attacks

for years, she doesn't think this is what the campaign should

be about."

- Associated Press

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http:// go.philly.com/iowa.dems

See Larry Eichel's

previous stories plus other election coverage

and links at

http:// go.philly.com/campaign2008

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com.