(CNSNews.com) - Democratic presidential candidates participating in the first debate of the 2008 campaign Thursday night all demanded the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The only disagreement was who opposed the war more.
"This is not America's war to win or lose," said Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who is considered the party's frontrunner for the presidential nomination but is under fire from liberal for voting in 2002 for military action. "We have given the Iraqis the chance for their own country," she added.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, Clinton's closest rival in the polls, was quick to point out that he was "proud" to have "opposed this war from the start."
"I've listened to mothers and fathers all over the country that tell me it's time [for the troops] to come home."
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who cast his vote in favor of military action in 2002 but has since apologized for doing so, called on Clinton "and anyone else who voted for this war ... to search themselves and decide whether they believe they've voted the right way.
"If so, they can support their vote," he said. "If they believe they didn't, I think it's important to be straightforward and honest."
Clinton repeated her position that "it was a sincere vote based on the information available to me. And I've said many times that if I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way."
"It's inconsistent to say you're for the war and continue to fund it," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, an early and strong opponent of the war. "Democrats have the power to end the war now. That's what we should do. I don't think it's sufficient to say we would have voted differently."
The eight Democrats gathered on a stage at South Carolina State University for the earliest-ever debate of a presidential campaign. South Carolina is one of the first states to hold a presidential primary. NBC News anchor Brian Williams moderated the event.
The debate came hours after the U.S. Senate passed a military funding bill incorporating a requirement that American troops begin withdrawing from Iraq by October. The House of Representatives voted for the measure a day earlier. President Bush has said he will veto it because of the troop-withdrawal timeline.
Throughout the debate, Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel tussled for the position of most ardent anti-war candidate.
"We should just plain get out," Gravel said. "Why not get out? What harm can it do? What's worse than soldiers dying in vain is more soldiers dying in vain."
Kucinich and Gravel both disputed the notion of a war on terror, and said terrorists cannot be defeated by military means.
Toward the end of the debate, their back-and-forth prompted Delaware Sen. Joe Biden to quip, "Sometimes use of force is justified and necessary. You guys can have your happy talk. We're into real life."
Clinton and Obama stood next to one another on the stage. The event was largely cordial, with most of the candidates using the opportunity to attack President Bush rather than each other -- or even any of the current Republican candidates.
They also talked about health care, the economy, and gun control.
Gun control was addressed in the context of the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech, when a student shot dead 32 people before killing himself.
Clinton presented the view that gun control laws -- favored by her husband, former President Bill Clinton -- could have prevented the shooting.
"I recall accompanying Bill to Columbine and meeting the family members of people killed," the former first lady said, referring to the 1999 high school shooting in Colorado. "We have got to do more to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and limit access so people that should not have guns won't have guns."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson took a different view.
"The Second Amendment is precious in the west," he said. "The vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding. We need more federal and state initiatives on mental illness to ensure those that have mental illness don't get guns."
All the candidates criticized the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the ban on partial birth abortions. They said the decision emphasizes the need for a Democratic president to appoint the next Supreme Court justice.
Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut said he voted to confirm John Roberts as chief justice in 2005 because "he said at confirmation he would uphold precedent. He walked away from that and walked away from women's health. Abortion should be rare, safe and legal."
Obama stressed his support for abortion rights, but said he hoped Americans could move beyond their divisions on the issue.
"We have to move past our debates and disagreements," he said. "We can all agree we want to reduce teen pregnancy and make it less likely women would find themselves in this painful position."
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