SOURCE: Associated Press
By Philip Elliott
Posted: February 25, 2007
Some of the nation's earliest presidential primary voters listen to Democratic presidential hopeful, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards at a house party in Salem, N.H., Saturday, Feb. 24, 2007.(AP Photo/Jim Cole)
NASHUA, N.H. -- Health care was the topic of the day Saturday, but Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards made sure New Hampshire voters gave him another chance to say he was wrong as a senator to authorize the use of force in Iraq.
Edwards' visit to New Hampshire was billed as a series of house meetings to promote his health care plan and his presidential bid. But less than five minutes after walking into the day's first house party, the 2004 vice presidential nominee turned to the subject that has consumed the Democratic contenders: Iraq.
"Honestly, if you don't bring up Iraq, I'll bring it up," the former North Carolina senator told about 150 people gathered in a state senator's living room and kitchen.
And when the first few questions dealt with other issues - homelessness, catastrophic health insurance, the federal budget - Edwards again suggested someone might want to ask him about Iraq. Edwards wanted to make sure everyone there knew he regretted his Senate vote that gave President Bush the authority to begin the war in Iraq - an apology Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has refused to offer.
"I suspect some in the room know this already, maybe everybody: I voted for this war. I should not have voted for this war. I was wrong to vote for it. I have to take responsibility for that and I do," Edwards said when asked about the procedural wrangling in the U.S. Senate over how to challenge to President Bush's Iraq war policy.
The war's unpopularity helped Democrats gain control of the New Hampshire Statehouse last fall and defeat its two Republican congressmen. Would-be presidents who've visited the state have faced detailed questions on the issue.
Edwards said the United States should cap its level of troops at 100,000 and bring home more than 40,000 troops immediately. His proposal closely resembles that of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report, which recommends a complete departure from Iraq by this time next year.
"(Bush) was not given authority to police a civil war, which is what he is doing now," Edwards said.
He borrowed an analogy from his wife, Elizabeth - sitting nearby on the floor, leaning against a couch - and said the U.S. approach is like a parent scolding a child for not making his bed and then making the bed for him repeatedly.
"We're continuing to enable this bad behavior," Edwards said.
On his way to an appearance in Salem, Edwards told reporters he wanted to make certain his position was clear.
"I just wanted to make sure anyone who hadn't heard me say it, knows that that's my position. On that issue and everything else, I want to make it absolutely clear to voters in New Hampshire where I stand," he said.
Perhaps in a sign that Edwards has accomplished that goal, not one of the nine questions he faced later at a house party in Concord involved Iraq. Instead, voters pressed him on immigration, education, and whether the president has become too powerful.
"Would you be willing to say this is too much power for one person?" one woman asked Edwards, who stood on a small ladder so the crowd of about 150 people could see him.
"I would absolutely say that," said Edwards, citing the Bush administration's government spying program as an example of dangerous efforts to expand the power of the presidency and executive branch.
"There has been illegal activity by the executive branch, there has been unconstitutional activity by the executive branch," he said. "The president can't decide because he thinks it's in the best interest of America that he will simply ignore the law and Constitution and spy on Americans."
The crowd cheered and applauded when another voter asked Edwards how he has changed since his 2004 campaign and whether he could stay in the race given that other candidates already have dropped out. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack was the latest, saying Friday that he couldn't raise enough money to compete.
"Oh, yeah," a grinning Edwards said slowly. "I can stay in."
Edwards said later he believed no one asked him about Iraq in Concord because the audience already knew what he would say, both on his vote and on what needs to be done now.
In Nashua, state Rep. Jeff Fontas, D-Nashua, said he wasn't that interested in supporting Edwards before Saturday.
"But he came and gave this brilliant speech," said Fontas, who was impressed with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's appearance weeks earlier. "He voted for the war. But his apology brought light to his ideas to fix it."
Edwards also brought his health care plan, which would require health insurance for everyone but also provide subsidies to help lower-income families afford it. He also touted proposals to cut energy subsidies to the energy industry, reduce global warming and address homelessness.
Edwards' work on anti-poverty causes since his last run brought Pat Harris to the event. She said she sees a bit of her political hero in Edwards.
"He's a Jimmy Carter-kind of guy," said Harris, who housed 20 John Kerry volunteers in 2004 but hasn't decided who will get her support in 2008. "I'm very impressed. I had questions. But the questions I had, he answered."