Democrats to gather for debate in New Hampshire

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HANOVER — Health care and the Iraq war topped the agenda Wednesday as the Democratic presidential candidates gathered for a nationally televised debate, the seventh involving the White House hopefuls.

All eight candidates were expected to attend the forum at Dartmouth College. They are: Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois, Joe Biden of Delaware, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska.

Voting is less than four months away, with New Hampshire slated to host the first primary. The contest had been tentatively scheduled for Jan. 22, a date certain to change as other states have jumped ahead in the nomination calendar.

The debate comes amid evidence that Clinton has begun to consolidate a formidable lead both nationally and in the state. A University of New Hampshire poll conducted for CNN and television station WMUR showed Clinton with 43 percent support among primary voters in the state, followed by Obama with 20 percent and Edwards with 12 percent.

Democratic strategist Donnie Fowler, who is not aligned with any presidential contender, said Clinton's rivals still have time and the opportunity to gain ground, but her strong showing in the debates so far is a key reason her lead appears to be growing.

“Hillary Clinton's reputation has always been that she's cold, compromising and divisive. But then you see her at these debates, where she proves to be solid, presidential and ready,” Fowler said. “It's very hard to argue after you see her in a debate that any of these candidates is more prepared to be president than she is.”

With Clinton's advantage increasing, her opponents, notably Edwards, have raised questions about her electability and suggested she is too polarizing to lead on issues such as health care reform.

At a rally in Peterborough, N.H., Obama acknowledged concerns about his relative lack of Washington experience and argued for his outside-Washington resume.

“There are those who say we just need someone who can play the game better in Washington. What I say is that we need to put an end to the game-playing,” he said.

He also argued that President Bush's mistakes and unpopularity stemming from the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina have been a boon to Democrats.

“George Bush has been a great advertisement for the Democratic Party,” Obama told a crowd of about 1,000. “I admit that part of the reason that people are coming out is because in part they are sick and tired of George Bush and Dick Cheney.”

The debate, moderated by NBC's Tim Russert, will be broadcast on MSNBC, New Hampshire Public Radio and New England Cable News.