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    Democratic presidential contenders focused their attention on the war in Iraq during appearances at two candidate forums Tuesday in Washington. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has the latest on the race for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

    The most recent polls show New York Senator Hillary Clinton solidifying her lead in the Democratic field.

    Senator Clinton sought to strengthen her position as the frontrunner for the party nomination in separate campaign appearances before a union group and an organization of liberal activists.

    Clinton focused much of her remarks on the war in Iraq. She and the other seven Democratic candidates are seeking the support of anti-war activists who are expected to be a major force in the presidential primaries and caucuses next year.

    "I believe that we have got to start engaging in diplomacy and that is what I would do, beginning now, if I were president," she said. "And if our president does not end our involvement in Iraq, when I am president, I will."

    Clinton favors a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq beginning immediately, a view also held by Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

    Obama is running second behind Clinton in public opinion polls.

    "We have no good options in Iraq left," he said. "We have bad options and worse options. The best option, I believe, is to make certain that we begin a phased redeployment, that we are as careful getting out as we were careless getting in."

    But some of the Democratic candidates who trail the top contenders are trying to highlight differences on Iraq.

    "If I were president today, I would withdraw all our forces before the end of this calendar year," said New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. "But where I differentiate with the other candidates is I leave no residual forces."

    Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards remains third in most polls, though his support has slipped in recent months.

    Edwards says the next president must manage more than just a troop withdrawal from Iraq.

    "I would get Sunni and the Shia leadership engaged in serious discussions to see if they can reach some kind of political solution, political reconciliation," said Edwards. "Because without that there is never going to be peace in Iraq."

    Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich is near the bottom of the eight candidate Democratic field in the polls. But Kucinich was quick to criticize fellow contenders like Clinton and Edwards who initially supported the use of force in Iraq.

    "And we need a president who can defend our country, but also who knows when war is wrong and is ready to say so when it counts, not four years later, not five years later," said Kuchinich.

    Political experts say Clinton has firmly established herself as the Democratic frontrunner in recent months by emphasizing her experience in government, first as First Lady during the presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton, and more recently as a U.S. Senator.

    "There is one person who I think has the greatest chance, if you figure the odds of all 18 candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, there is one candidate, if you had to pick one who has the best chance to be president, I think it is Hillary Clinton, the senator from New York," said Fred Barnes, editor of the Weekly Standard magazine.

    But analysts note that while Senator Clinton has long held a lead among Democrats in public opinion polls, she also continues to draw high unfavorable ratings from Republicans and independent voters. That could cause her problems in the general election if she winds up as the Democratic nominee.

    Maurice Carroll directs public opinion surveys at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

    "She is ahead and she has been ahead and she stays ahead without much change," said Carroll. "There is no question that Mrs. Clinton is very, very popular among Democrats, but she still has a high number of negatives in the Quinnipiac poll and in everybody's polls."

    In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Clinton narrowly beat the top Republican contenders for president, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Senator John McCain and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson. Thompson is not in the race, but is expected to join it soon.

     

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