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Clinton borrows page from husband's playbook

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Senator Hillary Clinton last night took a page from her husband's 1992 primary campaign and tried to emphasize the broad points of agreement among Democrats against Republicans. But several of the Democratic candidates on stage with her were not listening.

"The differences among us are minor," she said of the Democratic candidates' stances on the Iraq war. "The differences between us and the Republicans are major. And I don't want anyone to be confused about that."

Bill Clinton successfully used the we-agree-and-they-don't tactic to smooth over some of his differences with Democratic activists -- subtly reminding them that victory was more important than perfection. But his favorite tactic didn't work for Hillary.

The Iraq war is simply too pressing a concern for most Democrats.

And in the first presidential debate since the Democratic-led Congress voted to fund the war without a deadline for withdrawing, the anger of antiwar Democrats was the unseen presence in the room -- only occasionally addressed by the candidates, but definitely sensed by everyone.

The candidates who serve in the Senate felt most of the pressure. And though Clinton and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois voted against the funding bill, former North Carolina senator John Edwards accused them of failing to sufficiently condemn it.

"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," said Edwards. "They were among the last people to vote. And I think that the importance of this is -- they cast the right vote, and I applaud them for that -- but . . . they're asking to be president of the United States."

Finding a way to fault Clinton and Obama for opposing a bill that he also opposed was a flourish worthy of Edwards's reputation as a champion trial lawyer.

But it also seemed to backfire when Obama, who opposed the war from the start, pointed out that Edwards had voted to give President Bush the authority to go to war. "You were about four-and-a-half years late on this issue," Obama quipped.

The exchanges between Edwards and Clinton, and then Obama and Edwards, highlighted the well-known difficulties of running for president from the Senate. Compromise is necessary in the legislative process, but it also compromises clarity on the campaign trail.

Thus, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. , the three-decade incumbent from Delaware, was stuck defending his vote for a comprehensive immigration bill that included a border fence by saying, "The reason I voted for the fence was that was the only alternative that was there."

The candidates who were not bound by recent Senate votes -- New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, and former senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, who has not been in the Senate since 1981 -- all took full advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate their opposition to unpopular Senate votes.

Richardson, who kept reminding viewers that "I'm a governor," was articulate in explaining his opposition to the comprehensive immigration bill. But he might have exaggerated when he declared that he had spent 80 percent of his time as United Nations ambassador working on "the Iraq problem."

Meanwhile, as if seeking to atone for their Senate careers, Biden, Edwards, and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut all looked for opportunities to emphasize their passion and leadership.

Dodd described his outspokenness against the war. Biden raised his voice to a preacher-like roar in calling for action to prevent genocide in Darfur. And Edwards showcased his much-lauded health care plan.

But despite their exertions, none except Edwards -- whose shot against Clinton and Obama was the most effective of the night -- seemed to rise above the pack.

Nevertheless, Clinton and Obama were mostly unruffled. Their gravitas separated them from the pack as much as their poll ratings.

Clinton spoke calmly and fluidly, and seemed at ease -- even likable, as she smiled at a question about her husband. Obama was unfailingly measured and statesmanlike, even if his answers on national security still seem a little superficial.

But as the increasingly combative postures of the other candidates indicated, Clinton and Obama will face more bumps on the road ahead.

And most of them will come from Iraq.

Manchester debate coverage:
 CAMPAIGN NOTEBOOK: Hopefuls warm up to Iowa
Editorial and opinion:
 GLOBE EDITORIAL: Iraq takes all the oxygen
 JOAN VENNOCHI: The missing candidate
 JEFF JACOBY: Short on substance
 DERRICK Z. JACKSON: The losers? Innocent civilians