Barbs fly at spirited N.H. debate
Democratic presidential hopefuls Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., left, and Barack Obama, D-Ill. answer a question simultaneously during the Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Sunday, June 3, 2007.
AP Photo / Charles Krupa

MANCHESTER — Was there a winner among eight Democratic presidential hopefuls in this first New Hampshire debate of the 2008 primary season?

While choosing a winner is a matter of spin and opinion, it's clear the candidates engaged in a more energetic, contested and conversational forum than their earlier debate in South Carolina. There were more distinctions drawn and more specifics given on issues by the candidates such as Iraq, raising taxes for health care and priorities on terrorism.

It was also a contrast in styles. While Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, the front-runner in early primary polling, talked about the common themes between the candidates and assailed the Bush administration, former Sen. John Edwards chose a different track by aggressively targeting Clinton — and to a lesser extent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois — for her Iraq war authorization vote in 2002 and for not showing sufficient leadership in ending the war.

"I was wrong. I should have never voted for the war," Edwards said early in the debate about his vote in 2002. But he was countered by Clinton, who said "this is George Bush's war" and "we are trying to end the war." Obama sharply noted that Edwards was more than four years late on leadership on Iraq.

The so-called lower-tier candidates, who were called on less by moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN, had their moments.

Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware seized his moments by speaking passionately about taking action on Iraq, Darfur, Iran and campaign finance reform. Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut explained his energy and global warming proposals and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson touted his experience as a chief executive and former United Nations ambassador.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel were the most outspoken and more willing to blame their fellow Democrats for funding the Iraq war and health care reform.

One of the questions had a distinctive New Hampshire flavor. A few days after Gov. John Lynch signed civil union legislation into law, a question about support for gay marriage was sidestepped by the candidates.

With the debate signaling the beginning of a potentially less intense phase of summer campaigning, CNN analyst James Carville said the debate could have a larger impact on the politically active New Hampshire populace than the rest of the nation. Just who left the best and perhaps most lasting impression won't likely be known for months.