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MANCHESTER, N.H. (Reuters) - The Democratic presidential front-runners came under attack from a rival on Sunday for showing insufficient leadership on ending the war in Iraq in a debate in which the main target was President George W. Bush.
The two-hour exchange in the election proving ground of New Hampshire came 17 months before the November 2008 presidential election and featured squabbling and sharp attacks on Bush's war policy, but not much agreement on the best way to get the United States out of Iraq.
Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004, accused Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the two candidates who hold a solid lead over him in opinion polls, of lacking leadership on extricating U.S. troops from Iraq.
He based his attack on Democrats' failure to set a timetable for a troop pullout with the funding vote.
There is a difference "between leadership and legislating," Edwards said at the debate at St. Anselm College.
"Senator Clinton and Senator Obama did not say anything about how they were going to vote until they appeared on the floor of the Senate and voted. They were among the last people to vote," he said.
"They cast the right vote, and I applaud them for that. But the importance of this is, they're asking to be president of the United States," he added.
Clinton and Obama quickly defended themselves.
"It is not easy to vote for cutting off funding, because the fact is there are troops on the ground," Obama said, noting that he had opposed the war from the outset.
"So you're about four and a half years late on leadership on this issue," Obama responded to Edwards.
A longshot candidate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, was the only candidate who voted for the funding. He defended his vote as essential to protecting U.S. troops in combat.
Both Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, two even longer shot candidates, joined Edwards in criticizing the front-runners for not doing enough to stop the war.
"This war belongs to the Democratic Party because the Democrats were put in charge by the people in the last election with the thought that they were going to end the war," said Kucinich.
Gravel said: "It's the Democrats' war also" and argued that anyone who had originally voted to authorize the conflict ought to get out of the race. "That disqualifies them for president," he insisted.
Edwards found himself defending an argument he has been making that the war on terrorism is simply political propaganda, a bumper sticker slogan pushed by the Bush administration.
Bush had called the position "naive" and the breaking up of a plot to blow up New York's John F. Kennedy Airport led to a question to Edwards about his position at the debate hosted by CNN.
Clinton, representing a state still jolted by the Sept. 11 attacks, said Edwards was wrong.
"I have seen firsthand the terrible damage that can be inflicted on our country," she said.
Clinton went into the debate holding a solid lead over her rivals for the Democratic nomination, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
She had the support of 42 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, to 27 percent for Obama and 11 percent for Edwards.
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