But at the start, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) found herself on the defense for supporting a resolution declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.
Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) accused her of failing to “stand up” to President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
“I just want to be clear to the listeners that we have a real division here,” Edwards said. “I mean, among the Democratic candidates, there’s only one that voted for this resolution. And that is exactly what Bush and Cheney wanted.”
Edwards said the resolution was not a form of diplomacy, as Clinton has suggested, but could rather be used as a basis to go to war.
Clinton defended the vote, saying the resolution has already yielded progress.
“I understand politics and I understand making outlandish political charges, but this really goes way too far,” Clinton said. “In fact, having designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, we've actually seen some changes in their behavior. There is absolutely no basis for a rush to war, which I oppose and have opposed for two years.”
Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, disagreed: “There’s no evidence – none, zero – that this declaration caused any change in action on the part of the Iranian government.”
The debate, broadcast live from the Iowa State Historical Museum, simmered down after the Iran exchange and largely remained that way.
It likely had to do with the forum. Seven of the eight candidates sat at a V-shaped table in a room accessible only to the debate sponsors and a limited number of campaign staff members.
The media were kept in a nearby filing center, where they could listen – but not watch – the debate taking place one floor below.
Other than a photo opportunity at the top of the debate, no cameras recorded the event.
(New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson skipped the debate to attend a funeral for a Korean War veteran whose remains he helped bring home.)
A Clinton operative wondered, only half-jokingly, how many people were still listening by the end of the two-hour debate, which NPR and Iowa Public Radio limited to a discussion of Iran, China and immigration.
It stood in stark contrast to the confrontational posture adopted in recent weeks by the leading Democratic candidates, particularly Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who have sparred almost daily over experience, leadership and character as the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus approaches.
But today, most of the fire was aimed at the Bush administration.
When asked why some Muslims around the world hate America, Edwards pointed to Bush’s “bullying, selfish, abusive behavior.”
Obama went a little further.
“If you were a Muslim overseas listening to Rudy Giuliani say, ‘They are coming here to try to kill you,’ which is the tenor of many of the speeches that are delivered by the Republican candidates, you would get an impression that they are not interested in talking and resolving issues peacefully.”
Unlike two previous debates, when illegal immigration – and specifically drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants – became a flashpoint, the candidates found broad agreements on the issue.
Both Obama and Clinton were asked whether American citizens should turn in undocumented workers, and they both demurred, saying it was the responsibility of the federal government and Congress to solve the problem by passing a comprehensive overhaul bill.
"We do not deputize the Ameican people to do the job that the federal government is supposed to do," Obama said.
The questioner, NPR's Steve Inskeep, pressed Clinton: "Although if a citizen witnessed some other kind of crime, wouldn't you want them to report it?"
"Well, you know, it's a very clever question," Clinton responded.
"But I think it really begs a question, because what we're looking at here is 12 to 14 million people. ... If we want to listen to the demagogues and the calls for us to begin to try to round up people and turn every American into a suspicious vigilante, I think we will do graver harm to the fabric of our nation than any kind of, you know, person by person reporting of who might be here illegally."
Clinton got a chance to reinforce a key talking point of the last week against Obama – that as First Lady, she gained foreign policy experience as an adviser to her husband. In her answer, however, she revealed her confidence, referring to her husband’s eight years in office as “the first Clinton administration.”
“I not only advised; I often met with he and his advisers, both in preparation for, during and after” overseas trips, Clinton said. “I traveled with representatives from the Security Council, the State Department, occasionally the Defense Department, and even the CIA. So I was deeply involved in being part of the Clinton team in the first Clinton administration. And I am someone who wants the best possible advice from as many different sources as possible, and that would certainly include my husband.”
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) generated one of the few light-hearted moments of the afternoon.
After Edwards told his questioner, NPR’s Michelle Norris, that he would not buy toys from China for his two children this holiday season, Dodd piped in.
“I’m buying Iowa toys,” said Dodd, who moved his wife and young children to Iowa until the caucus. “They’re going to eat Iowa food.”