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Foreign Policy Issues Top Democrats' Debate

The eight Democrats seeking their party's U.S. presidential nomination sparred Sunday in a nationally televised debate. VOA's Paula Wolfson reports foreign policy issues topped the event, which was held in the key state of Iowa.

The debate quickly focused on Illinois Senator Barack Obama and whether or not he has the experience to conduct U.S. foreign policy.

Obama has said that if he is elected president, he would be willing to meet with America's adversaries. He has also indicated he would be willing to send military forces into Pakistan if there was strong intelligence pinpointing the whereabouts of Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, who has served in Congress for more than three decades, said those comments prove Obama is not ready to be president.

"We are asking Democrats across the country to choose amongst us here who is best able to lead," said Senator Dodd. "[Who has] the experience, the background, the demonstrated success in dealing with both domestic and foreign policy issues are critical questions. You are not going to have time in January of '09 to get ready for this job. You have got to be ready immediately for it."

Senator Hillary Clinton of New York was more restrained in her remarks about Obama. But she stressed that everyone involved in the campaign must realize how closely their words are followed overseas. She cited the angry response to Obama's comments on Pakistan as an example.

"Pakistan is on a knife's edge," said Senator Clinton. "It is easily, unfortunately, a target for the 'jihadists' and therefore you have to be very careful what it is you say with respect to Pakistan."

Senator Obama, who has only been on the national stage for about four years, responded by speaking of the need for a fresh approach to issues facing the country. He said it has been proven that experience is not necessarily the best criteria for tackling weighty problems. He cited current and former U.S. officials involved in planning for the Iraq war.

"Nobody had more experience than Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney," said Senator Obama. "And many of the people on this stage authorized this war. And it indicates how we get into trouble when we engage in the sort of conventional thinking that has become the habit in Washington."

On Iraq, all the candidates stressed their desire to bring American troops home. There were some differences in approach. A few talked about an immediate withdrawal, while others warned that it will take time to tackle the logistics of such a vast military undertaking. But former Senator John Edwards said the Democratic contenders as a group offer a far different scenario than the Republicans running for president.

"The differences between all of us are very small compared to all of us and the Republican candidates who, the best I can tell, are George Bush on steroids," said John Edwards. "They are going to keep this war going as long as it can possibly go."

This was the first nationally broadcast Democratic Party debate during the campaign in the midwestern state of Iowa, which will host one of the first major contests of the 2008 campaign.

In January, Democrats are scheduled to caucus across the state to determine which candidate Iowa will support at the party's national convention. Latest polls currently show three contenders virtually tied at the top: Obama, Clinton and Edwards.