MANCHESTER, N.H. — Eight Democratic presidential hopefuls differed sharply over Iraq and terrorism Sunday night in a sometimes pointed but largely polite debate that highlighted their contrasting histories on the war.
In the most heated exchange of the two-hour session, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama snapped at former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards for suggesting that Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to show leadership in trying to end the conflict.
Obama, who was elected to the Senate in 2004, noted that Edwards voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. "I think, John, the fact is, is that I opposed this war from the start," Obama said. "So you are about 4 1/2 years late on leadership on this issue."
Another clash erupted over terrorism after Edwards reiterated his assertion that the Bush administration's "war on terror" was a political "bumper sticker" and not a legitimate strategy to protect the country. Asked whether she agreed, Clinton replied: "No, I do not. I am a senator from New York. I have lived with the aftermath of 9/11. And I have seen firsthand the terrible damage that can be inflicted on our country" by terrorists.
The debate was the second of the campaign for the Democratic hopefuls, and proved much livelier than the first.
Although eight candidates participated, much of the focus was on Clinton, Obama and Edwards, whose center-stage placement underscored their position in the contest.
The Democrats' sparring over Iraq began when Edwards praised Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut for speaking out "very loudly and clearly" against a war funding measure last month while "others did not; others were quiet."
Edwards, who reaffirmed Sunday that he regretted his 2002 vote, has taken one of the strongest antiwar positions of the Democratic candidates, calling on Congress to use its power of the purse to force a withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"I think it's a difference between leading and following," Edwards said.
Pressed by moderator Wolf Blitzer to be more specific, Edwards said: "Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama did not say anything about how they were going to vote until they appeared on the floor of the Senate and voted. They were among the last people to vote."
Obama responded brusquely: "I'll let Hillary speak for herself. But the fact of the matter is, is that all of us exercise our best judgment, just as we exercised our best judgment to authorize or not authorize this war."
Blitzer asked Edwards and Clinton whether they regretted not availing themselves of a chance to read a classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq before voting to authorize the war. Edwards said a summary of the document sufficed, and Clinton said she felt "like I was totally briefed."
Obama noted that former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who was chairman of the Intelligence Committee, cited the report as a reason he voted against the war resolution. "So obviously there was some pertinent information there," Obama said.
The candidates differed over healthcare, with Edwards on the offense. The former senator has proposed rolling back President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy to pay for universal healthcare, and suggested that any candidate who said it was possible to expand coverage without spending more was being disingenuous.
"I believe you cannot cover everybody in America, create a more efficient healthcare system, cover the cracks -- you know, getting rid of things like preexisting conditions and making sure that mental health is treated the same as physical health -- I don't think you can do all those things for nothing," Edwards said.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson disagreed on the need for higher taxes, saying he expanded healthcare in his state by building on existing government programs and placing greater emphasis on prevention -- steps he said he would seek to replicate on a national level.
Edwards took issue with Obama's recently unveiled healthcare plan, saying it fell short of covering the estimated 47 million uninsured people in the U.S. "I believe unless we have a law requiring that every man, woman and child in America be covered, we're going to have millions of people who aren't covered," Edwards said.
Obama said his plan would eventually achieve universal coverage. The starting point, he said, was making health coverage more affordable by driving down costs and more heavily regulating the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. He said he would pay for his plan by rolling back the Bush tax cuts for Americans making over $250,000 a year.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio differed with both, noting his support for a government-run not-for-profit healthcare system.
But save for a few jagged exchanges, the candidates for the most part conducted themselves in amiable fashion, agreeing on issues more often than not.