COLUMBIA, S.C., April 27 — The first Democratic presidential debate did little to change the shape of the 2008 race, but it provided a post-debate flash point Friday between the campaigns of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton over the issue of fighting terrorism.
At issue is whether Obama mishandled a question about how he would respond if two American cities were attacked by terrorists: Did he fail to demonstrate the toughness and resolve that voters want in a president or was his answer a careful and comprehensive checklist for any potential president dealing with an international crisis?
The Clinton campaign seized on what happened, claiming, without mentioning Obama, that “Hillary was the candidate who demonstrated that she would know how to respond if the country was attacked.” An Obama spokesman dismissed the Clinton camp’s press release as “a sign of nervousness.”
The debate aftermath offered another example of the Clinton campaign’s determination to keep the pressure on a rival who has proved to be more formidable than some of the New York senator’s allies had expected. But it also underscored that, because Obama has served only a little over two years in the Senate, questions of experience will continue to surround his candidacy.
The moment at issue came in the second half of Thursday’s debate at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. The moderator, NBC News anchor Brian Williams, asked how Obama would change the military posture of the United States if the terrorist network al-Qaeda hit two U.S. cities.
Obama said he first would assure there was an effective emergency response and not a repeat of what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
He then turned his attention to the issue of intelligence. “The second thing is to make sure that we’ve got good intelligence, A) to find out that we don’t have other threats and attacks potentially out there, and, B) to find out, do we have any intelligence on who might have carried it out so that we can take potentially some action to dismantle that network.”
He went on to say that what the United States must avoid at such a moment is alienating the world community “based on faulty intelligence, based on bluster and bombast,” adding that “we’re not going to defeat terrorists on our own.”
His answer appeared shaped by the reaction, at home and abroad, to President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and he was suggesting clearly that he would not follow that model in confronting a terrorist attack.
But in rapid succession, former senator John Edwards (N.C.) and Clinton offered rather different responses, sounding a far more aggressive tone in their determination to retaliate and unequivocal in their willingness to use force.
“The first thing I would do is be certain I knew who was responsible, and I would act swiftly and strongly to hold them responsible for that,” Edwards said.
Clinton, citing her experience as a senator from New York during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said, “I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate.”
“If we are attacked, and we can determine who is behind that attack, and if there are nations that supported or gave material aid to those who attacked us, I believe we should quickly respond,” she said.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was not even offered the chance to respond to the question, but offered his views moments later. “I would respond militarily, aggressively,” he said. “I’ll build international support for our goals. I’d improve our intelligence, but that would be a direct threat on the United States, and I would make it clear that that would be an important, decisive, military response, surgical strike, whatever it takes.”
Those responses ultimately prompted a clarification from Obama, who, during a later exchange about global climate change, veered back to terrorism.
“We have genuine enemies out there that have to be hunted down; networks have to be dismantled,” he said. “There is no contradiction between us intelligently using our military and, in some cases, lethal force to take out terrorists and, at the same time, building the sort of alliances and trust around the world that has been so lacking over the last six years.”
Clinton campaign officials declined to speak for the record about Obama’s response, saying they wanted to focus publicly on her performance. But one aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity said of the Illinois senator, “I think he recognized that his answer was troubling because he came back and tried to fix it in the debate.”