WASHINGTON -- The eight Democratic candidates for president battled yesterday over how they would direct the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in a debate in Des Moines that largely stayed clear of personal attacks and instead featured something personal -- their views on prayer as well as moments that changed their lives.
Two Democratic front-runners also brushed aside recent criticisms.
Hillary Clinton, who emphasized her experience as first lady and as a US senator representing New York, dismissed comments by Karl Rove, the outgoing Bush administration senior adviser, who said Republicans would welcome Clinton as the Democratic nominee because of her high negative ratings in polls.
"I don't think Karl Rove's going to endorse me," Clinton said to laughter. "But I find it interesting he's so obsessed with me. And I think the reason is because we know how to win."
Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who joked that he prepared for the debate by riding in "bumper cars at the state fair," defended himself again over his statement that he would meet with adversarial foreign leaders as presi dent. He also said he believed he was the candidate who best represented new leadership in Washington.
"We need a fundamental change if we're going to dig ourselves out of the hole that George Bush has placed us in," he said.
But the 90-minute debate televised nationally by ABC from the Drake University campus in Des Moines also featured agreement from the candidates that they would pull out US troops from Iraq. However, they differed on timetables and tactics.
Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico said he would withdraw all the troops in eight months, adding that "many generals agree with me."
But Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said a pullout would take a year and would also mean leaving some troops behind to protect an estimated 4,000 US civilians working in Iraq. His assertion was supported by Clinton, Obama, and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina.
"If it ends with this country splintering, we will have, for a generation, our grandchildren, engaged in a regional war that will be consequential far beyond -- far beyond -- Iraq," Biden said. "America's security interests are at stake. You will see Turkey move in and take on the Kurds. You will see the Iranians move in and pick sides among the Shias. You will see Saudi Arabia and Syria continue to fund the most radical extreme elements of the jihadis."
Clinton warned that a withdrawal would be "a massive, complicated undertaking. . . . It's so important we not oversell this. We've got to move them as quickly as possible, but you also have to move out the equipment."
Edwards, who polls indicate is in a virtual tie with Clinton and Obama in Iowa, said he would pull out troops in nine or 10 months, adding to applause from the audience "that any Democratic president will end this war. That's what we know."
"The differences between us . . . are very small compared to the differences between us and the Republican candidates, who -- the best I can tell -- are George Bush on steroids," Edwards said. "They're going to keep this war going as long as it can possibly go."
Mike Gravel, a former US senator from Alaska, objected to the tone of the Iraq discussion.
"Why do we think that we can rule that country?" he said. "This is American imperialism you're hearing up here, and that hasn't worked and it will never work."
Obama, meanwhile, restated his position that he opposed the war before it began, unlike several of the other candidates, and said the country now faced "only bad options and worse options."
Democrats also touched on a range of other issues.
Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut called for public financing of campaigns. Richardson proposed a minimum $40,000 salary for teachers. Edwards said that as president he would "lead an international effort over time to eliminate nuclear weapons from this planet." And Obama warned that any plan to seriously reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lessen global warming would require "a little hardship, and a little pinching."
Much of the discussion, too, turned personal.
Asked whether they believed that prayer could have help prevent disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or the Minnesota bridge collapse, Edwards said no. He talked about the crises in his life.
"I prayed before my 16-year-old son died; I prayed before Elizabeth was diagnosed with cancer," he said, referring to his wife. "I think there are some things that are beyond our control."
Richardson said prayer was personal.
"I think it's important that we have faith, that we have values, but if I'm president, I'm not going to wear my religion on my sleeve and impose it on anybody," he said.
Gravel, who said he was "struck by the fact that many people who pray are the ones who want to go to war," called on people to show "more love" to one another.
And when the candidates were asked about a moment in their lives that changed their destiny, Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, recalled poverty as a boy.
"I would say the decisive moment in my life was when my family was living in a car in the inner city and I thought about all the dreams that I could have as a child," he said. "And I decided, at an early age, that I was going to be someone."
Clinton said she owed much to the women's and civil rights movements -- and to her mother.
"When I was growing up I didn't think I would run for president," she said. "I owe the opportunity that I have here today to many people; some of whom are known to history and many who aren't. But more personally, I owe it to my mother, who never got a chance to go to college, who had a very difficult childhood, but who gave me a belief that I could do whatever I set my mind."
John Donnelly can be reached at email@example.com.