MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (AFP) â€” Top Democratic presidential hopefuls traded their sharpest barbs yet of the 2008 White House race, as differences over Iraq burst into the open during their second televised debate.
In a string of snappy exchanges, senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and ex-vice presidential nominee John Edwards sparred over the initial US decision to launch a war which has now killed 3,488 US soldiers.
The three top candidates avoided the kind of gaffes which could threaten their campaigns, and long-shot candidates struggled for exposure, in an event which cranked up the intensity of the marathon race.
Edwards provoked the sniping early in the event Sunday in New Hampshire, which hosts the first state primary election in January, accusing Clinton and Obama of not doing enough as lawmakers to bring troops home.
â€œItâ€™s the difference between leading and following,â€ he said, referring to his demands for Congress to immediately use its power to cut war funding.
â€œThere is a difference between leadership and legislating.â€ Clinton and Obama last month voted against a new $100 billion emergency war budget, under pressure from the very grassroots activists Edwards appeared to be courting with his debate tactics.
Obama scolded Edwards, who like Clinton was a member of the Senate in 2002 and voted to authorize President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq, though Edwards has since repudiated his vote.
â€œI opposed this war from the start. So youâ€™re about four- and-a-half years late on leadership on this issue,â€ said Obama, who was not in the Senate in 2002, and so was spared the politically dicey choice.
On a day in which the US military reported another 14 American deaths in Iraq, Edwards later acknowledged Obama â€” as a way of swiping at fron-trunner Clinton, who again declined to say her vote to authorise war was a mistake. â€œHe deserves credit for being against this war from the beginning. He was right. I was wrong,â€ said Edwards.
â€œI think it is important for anybody who seeks to be the next president of the United States, given the dishonesty that weâ€™ve been faced with over the last several years, to be honest to the country.â€ Clinton, who has vowed to get troops home from Iraq if she is elected president, trained fire back at Bush, and Republican candidates who will hold their own New Hampshire debate on Tuesday.
â€œThis is George Bushâ€™s war. He is responsible for this war, he started the war, he mismanaged the war, he escalated the war and he refuses to end the war,â€ Clinton said trying to minimise differences with her rivals on Iraq.
Long-shot candidate, Senator Joseph Biden voted to pass the budget, despite the political risk, saying he could not do otherwise with troops in harmâ€™s way.
â€œI knew the right political vote, but I tell you what: some things are worth losing elections over.â€ Candidates at the debate, hosted by CNN, also vowed to refocus the â€˜war on terrorâ€™, a day after officials said they had exposed a homegrown plot to blow up New Yorkâ€™s main airport.
â€œWe live in a more dangerous world, not a less dangerous world, partly as a consequence of this presidentâ€™s actions,â€ said Obama.
Clinton indirectly rebuked Edwards for his declaration that the â€˜war on terrorâ€™ was simply a â€œbumper stickerâ€ slogan that Bush used to justify controversial policies like the Iraq war and the Guantanamo Bay terror camp.
â€œI am a senator from New York. I have lived with the aftermath of 9/11,â€ she said.
â€œI believe we are safer than we were. We are not yet safe enough.â€ Clinton basked in a new poll Sunday showing her as a solid front-runner, of a field also including New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, former Alaska senator Mike Gravel, Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, and veteran US senator Chris Dodd.
Forty-two per cent of respondents backed Clinton, Obama had 27 per cent and Edwards was third with 11 per cent in the national poll.
None of the other candidates in a distant chasing pack posted more than 2 per cent. But the picture appears much closer in individual state races, particularly in Iowa, where some polls have Edwards leading.
Candidates also sparred on their healthcare plans, education, and hit out at the Bush administrationâ€™s policies on the environment, Iran and veterans health care.
Richardson suggested the United States should boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics, if China did not do more to crack down on humanitarian tragedy in Darfur.