Just minutes into the debate, the three found themselves in a sharp exchange over the war in Iraq and terrorism when Clinton pointedly disagreed with Edwards' characterization of the war on terror as a "bumper sticker" and a mere "political slogan." Clinton not only refused to endorse that view, she came dangerously close — for a Democratic candidate — to complimenting the Bush administration. "I believe we are safer than we were" before 9/11, she said before adding: "We are not yet safe enough."
As it has been for nearly the past four years, however, it was the war that provided most of the spark and starkly demonstrated one of the major fault lines in the Democratic race.
While Clinton and Obama sought to explain their recent votes against the Iraq funding bill, Edwards struck hard, criticizing both of the senators for "quietly" opposing the administration's policy on timelines for withdrawal, insisting: "it's the difference between leading and following."
For her part, Clinton sought to cast the war as a unifying issue where Democrats have the upper hand, despite nuances in their approach. Noting that nearly all the Republican presidential candidates support the war, Clinton said: "The differences among us are minor. The differences between us and the Republicans are major."
But it was Obama who took offense at Edwards' line, refusing to cede any ground in the staunch anti-war camp. Alluding to Edwards' original vote for the war, the senator from Illinois told Edwards: "The fact is that I opposed this war from the start, so you're about 4 1/2 years late on leadership on this issue."
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My vote for the least politically savvy statement from last night's debate goes to former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, who offered a tough-love approach for America's pain at the pump: "There's nothing I would do as president to lower the price of gasoline right now. We Americans have to grow up."
Pandering is clearly not Gravel's strong suit.