Domestic Issues Highlight Dems' Debate

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., listens during the Des Moines Register Democratic Presidential Debate in Johnston, Iowa, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007.
Democratic presidential rivals called for higher taxes on the highest-paid Americans and on big corporations Thursday and said any thought of balancing the federal budget would have to wait.

"We're not going to be able to dig ourselves out" of Bush-era deficits in the next year or two, said Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, one of six Democratic rivals sharing a debate stage for the final time before Iowa's leadoff Jan. 3 caucuses. (Check out senior political editor Vaughn Ververs' live blogging and analysis of the debate.)

Asked about the importance of eliminating deficits, several of the Democrats responded by saying they favored higher taxes on the wealthy and on big corporations.

"I want to keep the middle class tax cuts" that Congress passed during President Bush's tenure, said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. But she said she favors raising taxes for the wealthiest income-earners and corporations.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina readily agreed. "The truth of the matter is the tax policy has been established by the big corporations and the wealthiest Americans," he said. "What we ought to be doing instead is getting rid of those tax breaks."

The Democrats fielded questions on the same stage that Republican White House hopefuls held on Wednesday, and with the same cordiality.

Yet for one brief moment, the fierce competition between the two front-runners shone through. It came when Obama was asked how he could offer a new type of foreign policy in view of the fact that so many of his advisers once worked for President Clinton.

Hillary Clinton laughed out loud, and said with a smile on her face, "I'm looking forward to hearing that."

Obama, also smiling, waited for the laughter to die down before saying, "Hillary, I'm looking forward to you advising me as well."

Aside from laughs like that, there were few fireworks,'s Ververs said.

"Despite a few moments of levity and tension, the six Democrats trod through a list of rather pedestrian questions in much the same way their Republican counterparts did yesterday - with a litany of generalities and campaign slogans," he said.

However, unlike in the Republican debate, the top three Democrats successfully distinguished themselves from one another, even without any back-and-forth exchanges, Ververs added.

"While there was no direct mention of some of the issues which these three have bickered about in the past, each managed to set themselves apart in ways the Republicans did not," he said. "If there was a winner, it may have been Edwards. His answers to almost every question stuck to his populist themes of sticking up for the disadvantaged and sticking it to corporate America. That should play well among Democrats in Iowa."

The discussion of taxes underscored the gulf between the two parties on economic issues. Republicans called repeatedly on Wednesday for elimination of the estate tax - which falls principally on the largest of estates - and reduction in the income tax on corporations.

Those differences will have to wait for the general election campaign, however. For now, all presidential hopefuls in both parties are concentrating with single-minded determination on their nomination races beginning with the Iowa caucuses on Jan 3 and the New Hampshire primary five days later.

Obama, Clinton and Edwards are in a tight race, according to numerous pre-caucus polls. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden trail badly.

After months of campaigning, the six debaters stuck to well-rehearsed campaign lines, passing up opportunities to attack one another and periodically illustrating their points with Iowa-specific examples.

The civility may have been intentional, CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield noted.

"First, it's a belief that Iowa voters punish rough-house politics," he said. "Second, the Des Moines Register, the sponsor of these debates, is making its endorsement Sunday and, on the Democratic side particularly, that endorsement is critical. It's one reason why Sen. Edwards finished a strong second [in 2004]. Nobody wants to play rough-house and offend the good people who run the Des Moines Register."

Dodd noted that the cost of attending the University of Iowa has risen 147 percent in the past six or seven years. Obama, addressing energy issues, squeezed in a reference to a new wind turbine manufacturing plant in Keokuk with 400 jobs. Biden said his first trip to Iowa was a generation ago, when former Sen. John Culver ran in 1974. Biden didn't say so, but Culver's son, Chet, is the current governor, neutral in the race for the party's presidential nomination.

Only Richardson said balancing the budget would be a high priority. He noted that as governor, he is required to do so, and he called for a presidential line-item veto, a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, the elimination of "corporate welfare" and elimination of congressional earmarks to help get rid of federal red ink.

Dodd jabbed at Richardson, saying the federal government is "much more complicated than state budgets. What we need to be doing is growing our economy, giving people a sense of confidence again."

Biden was one of several Democrats who noted that the Iraq War is costing $10 billion a month - money that he said could be spent on education, health care and other programs, or allocated to deficit reduction.

The federal budget ran a surplus of $127 billion the year Bush took office. The deficit hit a record high of $413 billion in 2004 before declining to $162.8 billion for the 2007 budget year, which ended last Sept. 30.

Republicans have long blamed an economic slowdown, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a stock market crash for the country's descent into deficit spending and save said tax cuts have promoted economic growth. Democrats contend Bush's tax cuts needlessly drained the treasury of revenue, while disproportionately helping the wealthy and corporations.

The field of debaters was trimmed to six at the direction of the newspaper that hosted it. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio was excluded because he does not have a campaign office in the state. His supporters protested the decision, but to no avail.

It was not clear why the same rules did not exclude former Ambassador Alan Keyes from the Register's debate of Republican candidates on Wednesday. A spokeswoman for the newspaper did not immediately return a telephone call or e-mail.