Dem Candidates Blast Bush Over Iran

Democratic presidential hopefuls, from right, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., before the National Public Radio debate, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007, at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines, Iowa.
The Democratic presidential candidates stood together Tuesday in criticizing President Bush's assertion that "nothing's changed" despite a new intelligence report that says Iran has stopped its development of a nuclear bomb.

One month before Iowa's leadoff caucuses - in a debate broadcast only on radio - the presidential candidates stood together in welcoming the report's assessment and criticizing Mr. Bush's assertion that "nothing's changed" because of it.

They divided on the three-month-old Senate vote to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization - a resolution that only Hillary Rodham Clinton supported among the Democratic candidates. She said her vote was meant to encourage diplomacy, but several of her foes were having none of that and John Edwards said it sounded like war.

Broadcast on NPR, the debate was limited to three subjects: Iran, China and immigration. The Democrats, unlike the campaign's Republican contenders, proposed no drastic crackdown on illegal immigrants. On China, they said more should be done to put U.S. companies on equal footing with Chinese imports, but again they proposed no radical new remedies.

The candidates sat in front of large radio microphones at a V-shaped table at the Iowa State Historical Museum. With no audience to see them in person or via video, they dressed more casually than in previous debates. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich was the only one to keep on his jacket and tie.

Their interaction with each other was relatively civil compared with the sniping between the campaigns of Clinton and rivals Barack Obama and Edwards in recent days.

Edwards did confront Clinton on her characterization of her September Iran vote.

"Declaring a military group sponsored by the state of Iran a terrorist organization, that's supposed to be diplomacy?" Edwards interjected. "This has to be considered in the context that Senator Clinton has said she agrees with George Bush terminology that we're in a global war on terror, then she voted to declare a military group in Iran a terrorist organization. What possible conclusion can you reach other than we are at war?"

Clinton objected. "You know I understand politics and I understand making outlandish political charges, but this really goes way too far," said the New York senator. She is locked in a tight three-way race with Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, and Obama, a senator from Illinois, in this first-voting state.

"None of us is advocating a rush to war," Clinton said.

Joe Biden, a senator from Delaware who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, didn't let that pass, telling Clinton that "terminology matters."

"It's not about not advocating a rush to war," he said. "I'm advocating no war."

Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd said he and others voted against the resolution because they felt it "specifically eliminated any option except the military one."

"Those critical moments come periodically, but it demonstrates leadership on a critical issue such as this one," Dodd said. Obama missed the vote while campaigning in New Hampshire.

"Among the Democratic candidates," Edwards reminded listeners, "there's only one that voted for this resolution. And this is exactly what Bush and Cheney wanted."

Iowa is scheduled to hold the first presidential nominating contest during caucuses on Jan. 3. While Clinton is the clear front-runner in national polls, Iowa is a more heated contest and her Iranian vote has been an issue with the state's voters.

The seven candidates participating in the debate began by agreeing that the United States should shift its focus in dealing with Iran to diplomatic engagement.

"President Bush continues to not let facts get in the way of his ideology," said Obama. "They should have stopped the saber rattling, should have never started it. And they need, now, to aggressively move on the diplomatic front."

Clinton said it's clear that pressure on Iran has had an effect - a point disputed by Biden.

"With all due respect with anybody who thinks that pressure brought this about, let's get this straight. In 2003, they stopped their program," Biden said.

At a Tuesday morning press conference, Mr. Bush said the intelligence report supported his contention that Iran remains intent on developing a nuclear weapon at some point.

"I view this report as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program," Mr. Bush said. "The reason why it's a warning signal is they could restart it."

Fred Thompson, one of the Republicans running to succeed Mr. Bush, said Iran can easily shift back to working on a nuclear weapon, CBS News' John Bentley reports.

"One thing that crosses my mind is that this is information that the Iranians have put out," Thompson said. "They want us to relax a little bit. Nowadays, they can have a peaceful nuclear program, and it's very, very easy to turn a screw or two and turn it into a weapons program."

After moving away from Iran, the debate featured little disagreement between the presidential hopefuls. On China, none of the candidates was willing to raise import taxes to make higher-priced U.S. products more competitive with Chinese products. Edwards pledged that none of his children's Christmas toys would come from China.

"My toys are coming from Iowa," Dodd said, in an appeal to the race's first voters.

Edwards linked the concerns over China to overall U.S. trade policy, which he said has neglected American workers for over a decade - a subtle reference to former President Bill Clinton's support for the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"America, to be competitive over the long term, needs a trade policy that works, that looks out for the interests of the middle class, but it also needs to be the most creative, best educated, most innovative workforce on the planet," he said. "Those two things are not mutually exclusive."

Clinton and others used the China discussion to again criticize Mr. Bush, accusing the president of having a directionless policy.

"We've gotten neither the kind of smart enforcement nor the kind of cooperation that might lead to changes in behavior," she said. "Instead we have this erratic, incoherent policy. So I think it's important that as the next president, I would make it very clear what we expect from China and use every tool at our disposal to try to change its behavior."

The discussion of immigration was in sharp contrast to the Republican debate last week in which the GOP candidates tried to outmaneuver each other on who would be tougher on illegal immigrants. The Democratic candidates said they were not willing to encourage Americans to arrest illegal citizens - instead, they promoted border security and cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers.

"The point is that we're not going to deputize a whole bunch of American citizens to start grabbing people or turning them in, in part because the ordinary American citizen may not know if this person is illegal or not," Obama said. "Now we should be holding employers accountable because they have a mechanism whereby they can actually enforce."

Kucinich agreed, saying, "We don't encourage vigilantism in this country."

Clinton said immigrants are part of the U.S. community and probably made the hotel beds that some of the candidates stayed in and attributed the tone of the immigration debate to a stagnating economy - while highlighting job growth during her husband's administration.

"I traveled this country extensively during the 1990s," she said. "I did not hear this kind of contentious debate. Why? Because we had 22.7 million new jobs. Peoples' incomes were rising. They felt like there was plenty of opportunity to go around. Now, Americans feel like they're standing on a trap."

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson missed the debate to attend a memorial service for a Korean War soldier whose remains he brought home from North Korea in April.