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Democrats spar on Iran, healthcare

Presidential rivals target Clinton policies

Candidates (from left) Senator Joseph Biden, Senator Christopher Dodd, Governor Bill Richardson, Senator Barack Obama, former senator John Edwards, Representative Dennis Kucinich, Senator Hillary Clinton, and former senator Mike Gravel. Candidates (from left) Senator Joseph Biden, Senator Christopher Dodd, Governor Bill Richardson, Senator Barack Obama, former senator John Edwards, Representative Dennis Kucinich, Senator Hillary Clinton, and former senator Mike Gravel. (JIM COLE/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

HANOVER - Democratic presidential candidates sparred last night on Iran, healthcare, and tax policy, with Senator Hillary Clinton of New York facing frequent jabs from rivals who suggested she was enabling a potential conflict with Iran and would be too divisive a figure to forge agreements with a closely divided Congress.

Clinton, appearing at ease amid the assaults on her policies, was cautious in her responses, refusing to commit to pulling all US troops out of Iraq by 2013, and hedging her responses on whether to raise Social Security taxes or support Israel in a hypothetical military attack on Iran.

Basking in a new poll that shows her more than 20 points ahead of her closest competitor in the Granite State, Clinton brushed off criticism that she was avoiding specifics on national security and other issues.

But her foes - while frequently citing their "respect" for the former first lady - painted a picture in a Dartmouth College auditorium last night of another Clinton administration that would repeat the mistakes of the past.

"I voted for this war in Iraq, and I was wrong to vote for this war," said former senator John Edwards of North Carolina. "Senator Clinton also voted for this war. We learned a very different lesson from that."

Clinton - who voted earlier yesterday for a Senate resolution calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a "terrorist" organization - heard her rivals accuse her of enabling President Bush to take aggressive action in a feared military showdown with Iran, which is suspected of trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Clinton said last night that her vote was to "put some teeth" into efforts to pressure Iran to abandon any nuclear program. But her colleagues said they feared the resolution could be construed as a congressional endorsement of a war against Iran, much like the legislators' vote five years ago in favor of a measure authorizing President Bush to go to war against Iraq.

"What I learned is, you cannot give this president the authority [to go to war] and you cannot give him the first step in this authority, because he cannot be trusted," Edwards said.

Senators Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware voted against the resolution yesterday, with Dodd saying "we shouldn't repeat our mistakes and enable this president again."

Senator Barack Obama - who took every opportunity last night to remind voters he had opposed the Iraq war from the start, distinguishing himself from Clinton - would also have voted no on the Iran resolution had he been in Washington yesterday, spokesman Bill Burton said.

The debate had the candidates touting their strengths and needling their foes about purported weaknesses. Obama frequently underscored his mission to unite Americans, fellow lawmakers, and world leaders, while implying subtly that Clinton would be a divisive leader.

Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, discussed his foreign policy experience and his victory yesterday in the Senate, which voted overwhelmingly to endorse his strategy of political partition in Iraq. Biden also took a shot at Clinton on healthcare, suggesting that her past, rocky relationship with Capitol Hill on the issue would make it hard for her to be - as she pledged last night - the healthcare president.

"They feed on this Clinton-Bush thing," Biden said of his Republican colleagues, about 15 of whom would be needed to approve a Clinton healthcare plan. "I'm not suggesting that it's Hillary's fault. I think it's a reality that it's more difficult."

Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio touted his antiwar record, noting that he was the only sitting member of Congress on the stage who had voted against the Iraq war and for every bill funding the war. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson - acknowledging that he had made mistakes in past debates and appearances, and would likely continue to do so - said he nonetheless delivered in his roles as governor, energy secretary, and negotiator with foreign leaders.

Clinton was careful not to commit herself on controversial issues, suggesting that as the front-runner she is seeking to avoid saying anything that could come back to haunt her in the general election.

Asked if she would have all US troops out of Iraq at the end of her first term, she said she could not answer, since she could not predict what the situation would be in Iraq at that time. For that matter, several other candidates also said they couldn't commit to that goal either.

Asked if she would support Israel if it determined Iran was a nuclear threat and attacked it, Clinton called the question a "hypothetical," and declined to answer, although she noted she would do "everything I can," starting with the use of diplomacy, to curtail a nuclear threat from Iran.

Clinton said she did not support nuclear power - at least until the issues of cost and the disposal of nuclear waste were resolved. She also would not answer whether she would increase the cap on the amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax - an idea endorsed generally by several of the candidates, including Dodd, Obama, and Edwards - because she thought it was critical for the nation to establish fiscal discipline before discussing whether to adjust the tax.

The Social Security tax is the most regressive of taxes on US income because it is levied at the same percentage rate, regardless of income, and exempts income above $97,500, meaning wealthier people pay a lower effective rate on Social Security than poorer people.

Richardson said he would not support raising the cap, arguing that it would hurt small businesses - which pay part of the retirement tax - and family farms.

Clinton did suggest regulating tobacco through the Food and Drug Administration, although she did not endorse the idea of a federal ban on smoking in public places. Obama said such a ban might be necessary if local efforts to control smoking in public are unsuccessful.

Most of the candidates came down hard on youth drinking, with only Kucinich and former senator Mike Gravel of Alaska arguing that 18-year-olds should be allowed to consume alcohol.

"People who fight and die for this country ought to be able to drink," said Gravel.

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