HANOVER — The three leading Democratic presidential hopefuls conceded Wednesday night they could not guarantee that all U.S. combat troops would be gone from Iraq by 2013, the end of the next president's first term in office.
"I think it's hard to project four years from now," said Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in the opening moments of a campaign debate in the nation's first primary state.
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"It is very difficult to know what we're going to be inheriting," added Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
"I cannot make that commitment," said former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson provided the assurances the others would not.
"I'll get the job done," said Dodd, while Richardson said he would make sure the troops were home by the end of his first year in office.
The opening question of the two-hour debate plunged the eight contenders into the issue that has dominated all others in the race for the White House.
With the primary season approaching, all eight have vied with increasing intensity for the support of anti-war voters likely to provide money and organizing muscle as the campaign progresses.
Edwards said his position on Iraq was different from Obama and Clinton, adding he would "immediately drawn down 40,000 to 50,000 troops." That's roughly half the 100,000 that Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has indicated could be stationed there when President Bush's term ends in January 2009.
Clinton said she favors the continued deployment of counterterrorism troops, not forces to engage in the type of combat now under way.
Asked whether they were prepared to use force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, several sidestepped. Instead, they said, all diplomacy must be exhausted in the effort.
Moderator Tim Russert of NBC News asked about Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani's pledge to set back Iran by eight to 10 years if it tries to gain nuclear standing.
Sen. Joe Biden flashed anger at the mention of the former New York mayor. "Rudy Giuliani doesn't know what the heck he's talking about," the Delaware senator said. "He's the most uninformed person on foreign policy that's now running for president."
What: Candidate forum on Iraq, with presidential hopeful John Edwards.
When: Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 3 p.m.
When:Seacoast Media Group, 111 New Hampshire Ave., Portsmouth