Questions of Political Leadership At Heart of Democratic Forum

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) - Questions of courage and political leadership emerged at the latest Democratic debate, as John Edwards forcefully challenged front-runners Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama over whether they had demonstrated leadership on key issues.

Two long-shot hopefuls - Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich - denounced what they called the lack of leadership by congressional Democrats after voters returned them to power last November.

With a new Washington Post/ABC News poll showing Clinton far ahead of her rivals nationally, the former first lady projected an air of confidence and a mastery of the subject matter at Sunday's forum. She also insisted Democrats should focus their policy critiques on Republicans, especially President Bush.

"The differences among us are minor. The differences between us and Republicans are major, and we don't want anybody in America to be confused," she said.

She chuckled as her rivals were quizzed over what role her husband, former President Bill Clinton, would play in a Democratic administration. The consensus: He'd be a roving global ambassador.

Obama, who in the first debate in late April appeared nervous and insufficiently prepared, had a smoother delivery this time and a more detailed grasp of policy issues.

So it was left to Edwards, struggling to catch up to Clinton and Obama in most national polls, to throw the sharpest elbows, accusing them of being passive and cautious on urgent issues, like Iraq, health care and gay rights.

"The job of the president of the United States is not to legislate but to lead," he said - a point he repeated several times.

One strategist said Edwards' approach was bold but potentially dangerous.

"John Edwards clearly has a new strategy to isolate Senator Clinton and defuse Senator Obama on the war and other key issues," Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter said. "It's a smart but risky strategy to differentiate from others to maintain top-tier status, but it's a fine line between aggressive and desperate."

Edwards applauded Clinton and Obama for voting last week against legislation to fund military operations in Iraq after a timeline for removing troops was stripped from the bill. But he said the votes didn't demonstrate the level of political leadership voters expect.

His rivals, Edwards said, "did not say anything about how they were going to vote ... they were among the last people to vote," Edwards said. "I think all of us have a responsibility to lead on these issues."

Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, voted in 2002 to authorize military action in Iraq and was a forceful defender of the war during his first presidential bid in 2004.

That led Obama, who as an Illinois state senator opposed the war before it started, to jab back at Edwards.

"You're about four and a half years late on leadership on this issue," Obama said.

Obama and Edwards also tangled over details of their respective health care plans, with Edwards arguing that Obama's proposal would not provide universal coverage. Obama said his plan focused primarily on bringing down costs and said that mandatory health coverage was meaningless if consumers couldn't afford to pay for it.

Clinton stood quietly between the two as they bickered, letting through an occasional bemused smile for the cameras.

Edwards had tough words for the former first lady, too, batting back her contention that the differences among the candidates were unimportant.

"There are differences between us, and I think Democratic voters deserve to know the differences between us," he said.

Clinton lobbed back at Edwards over his contention that the war on terror is little more than a "bumper sticker" slogan.

"I am a senator from New York. I have lived with the aftermath of 9/11, and I have seen firsthand the terrible damage that can be inflicted on our country by a small band of terrorists," she said.

With the so-called "top-tier" candidates - Clinton, Obama and Edwards - grabbing the most screen time during the debate, Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson did what they could to break through.

They got a chance when all eight candidates were asked what their top priority would be for their first 100 days in office.

- Edwards: "travel the world" and "re-establish America's moral authority."

- Clinton: bring home U.S. troops from Iraq.

- Obama: bring home U.S. troops and push for national health care.

- New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson: upgrade U.S. schools and push a $40,000-a-year minimum wage for teachers.

- Delaware Sen. Joe Biden: end the war in Iraq and defuse tensions with Iran and North Korea.

- Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich: help "reshape the world for peace" and end all nuclear weapons.

- Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel: Remind Congressional leaders they can end the war in Iraq now.

- Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd: "Restore constitutional rights in this country."

Richardson also stressed his efforts to expand health insurance in his state and criticized the immigration bill moving through Congress, while Biden displayed his knowledge of global affairs as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Dodd outlined his proposal for energy independence, which he has tried to make the signature issue of his presidential bid.