Hillary Clinton declared for the first time yesterday that she she would end the Iraq war as soon as she became President, as she tried to confront the issue that poses the greatest danger to her White House ambitions.
Speaking to a huge audience of Democratic elders and activists, Mrs Clinton was left in no doubt by the heckling she received — and the rapturous reception given to her rival Barack Obama — that her vote authorising the war poses a serious threat to her candidacy.
As the two presidential candidates were forced to appear on the same stage after weeks of carefully avoiding each other, Mr Obama, who spoke shortly before Mrs Clinton, brought the audience to its feet as he reminded his party that he opposed the war before it began.
The two frontrunners were taking part in the first public parade of the party’s ten White House hopefuls — and before an audience that will be crucial to gaining the nomination.
Mr Obama received a long and cheering standing ovation on the issue of Iraq; for Mrs Clinton, many sat on their hands.
“As was mentioned [in the introduction] I was opposed to this invasion publicly and frequently,” Mr Obama declared, in a clear reference to Mrs Clinton’s vote in October 2002 authorising the war.
“But whether you were for or against it, we all have an obligation to come up with the best plan to bring our troops home.” He was greeted with whoops of “Love Ya!”.
Mrs Clinton, by contrast, struggled to win over her audience. Reminding it that she recently proposed capping troop levels, some in the crowd shouted out: “What about bringing them home?” Mrs Clinton persevered. “If I’d been president in October 2002 I would not have started this war,” she said. “And if we haven’t ended this war in Congress by January 2009, as President I will!” A carefully choreographed standing ovation by a block Clinton supporters followed, but at least two thirds of those in the Washington Hilton remained seated.
Winning over the Demcratic National Convention members, particularly, is the candidates’ first key challenge, as these are the people with the political muscle to influence donors and organise party workers during the primary nominating campaign.
Although the first caucus in Iowa is nearly a year away, the contours of the contest were already clear — and became explicit yesterday.
Mr Obama will rely heavily on his mesmerising charisma and consistent opposition to war; Mrs Clinton on her massive fund-raising operation and one of the most fearsome political machines in America.
Mr Obama’s meteoric political rise has thus far been a masterclass in style over substance, and his speech yesterday was still heavy on grandiloquent themes such as the triumph of hope over cynicism.
But as the Senate prepares to debate a resolution next week opposing President Bush’s surge of troops into Iraq, Mr Obama’s consistent stance on the conflict is clearly the biggest obstacle between Mrs Clinton and the nomination.
Although that is still hers to lose — she leads Mr Obama by 20 points among likely primary voters — the war is her Achilles heel.
Every other major candidate who backed the war has since recanted their vote, most notably John Edwards, the 2004 vice-presidential nominee who yesterday called for an immediate troop withdrawal.
But not Mrs Clinton. Fearful of appearing too liberal should she become the candidate, she has stopped short of apologising for the vote.
Yesterday was by far the most explicit and strident she has been on Iraq. But however she tries to criticise Mr Bush’s “reckless war”, many in the party cannot forgive her the vote, which they see as a calculated move at a time when Mr Bush was riding high in the polls.
The parade of candidates made clear how little room is left for Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama’s eight other challengers to make an impact. “Give me a chance to be heard,” implored Chris Dodd, a Connecticut senator. It was an appeal likely to fall on deaf ears.