Clinton, Obama Campaigns Clash Over Iraq War

Wednesday, March 21st 2007, 11:41 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Presidential hopeful Barack Obama on Wednesday reminded Senate colleagues that he'd opposed the Iraq war from the start _ the latest flare-up in a continuing clash over the conflict with his chief Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton.

With both candidates' credibility and leadership on the line, Obama said he wanted to make his record clear.

``I said then that I certainly do not oppose all wars, but dumb wars, rash wars. Because there is no decision more profound than the one we make to send our brave men and women into harm's way. ... I wish we had been wrong. I wish we weren't here talking about this at the beginning of the war's fifth year,'' the freshman Illinois senator said in a speech to the Senate.

Clinton, a New York senator, voted in 2002 to grant President Bush authority to launch the military invasion of Iraq, while Obama has cast his early and forceful opposition to it as a key test of presidential judgment. Obama came to the Senate in January 2005. The Clinton team recently began openly challenging his claim of political purity and authenticity on the volatile issue.

The matter came to a head Monday at a forum at Harvard University, where Clinton strategist Mark Penn squared off with Obama adviser David Axelrod over the Illinois senator's voting record on the war. But beneath the squabble lay an acute recognition of the depth of voter anger over Iraq, especially among Democratic primary voters.

Polling shows most Americans now decisively oppose the war, but the figure is much higher among Democrats. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken last month found that 61% of the public now believe the war was a mistake; among Democrats, it was 91%.

``Iraq is the issue that is first among equals right now, and these candidates are under incredible pressure from party activists to talk about it in a detailed way,'' Democratic strategist Erik Smith said. ``Obama is trying to be the insurgent candidate on the war, while the Clinton campaign is trying to level the playing field and change the frame of the debate.''

On the presidential campaign trail, without naming names, Obama jabs at rivals who voted in favor of the invasion, casting it as a key test of political and moral judgment.

``I am proud of the fact that I opposed this war from the start,'' Obama said to huge cheers at a rally Saturday in Oakland, Calif., ``that I stood up in 2002 and said this is a bad idea. This is going to cost of billions of dollars and thousands of lives.''

Clinton, meanwhile, has been under pressure from Democratic activists critical of her vote. She's refused to repudiate the vote, but has harshly criticized the conduct of the war, saying ``if we knew then what we know now'' she never would have voted as she did.

Clinton advisers insist that voters care more about ending the Iraq conflict than revisiting how it started. In recent months, Clinton has sponsored legislation capping troop levels and has spoken in detail of how she would resolve the conflict as president.

Still, the Clinton camp _ keenly aware of Obama's increasing popularity among Democrats _ has become more aggressive in challenging his careful positioning on the war. The first signs of a new strategy trickled out late last week, when former President Clinton was quoted in a New York tabloid gossip column complaining that not enough attention had been paid to Obama's Senate votes on Iraq.

At Harvard, Penn answered a question by bringing up Obama's Senate record. He said Obama, like Clinton, has voted for spending bills to continue funding the war. And like Clinton, he opposed an amendment sponsored by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry last year that would have set a July 1, 2007, deadline for withdrawing troops.

``When they got to the Senate, Senator Obama's votes were exactly the same,'' Penn said.

The claims provoked an immediate retort from the Obama campaign, which on Tuesday released a video and a detailed compilation of Obama's public statements opposing the war since his debut on the national stage.

``On the most important issue of our time, both for the primary electorate and the country, Barack Obama got it right,'' Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Clinton and Obama both support legislation that would remove most U.S. troops by March 1, 2008.

For her part, Clinton refused on Tuesday to engage in the debate, leaving that to her surrogates.

``I think what unites Democrats is much greater than what divides us and we need to stay focused on trying to rein in the president and reverse this escalation and begin to bring our troops home,'' she said.