DAVENPORT, Iowa, Sep 21 (Reuters) Democratic White House contender Hillary Clinton touted her leadership on health care issues but some of her 2008 rivals questioned her ability to rally the broad political support needed to get a universal coverage plan through Congress.
During a debate in the early voting state of Iowa, several Democrats said the fine print of their competing health care plans would be less important than their ability to work with political opponents, fend off corporate interests and win public support for the task.
Clinton's presidential rivals implied the New York senator, who led a failed attempt at a health care overhaul as first lady 13 years ago, was not the best person for the job. They dismissed her claim that she learned from her failure.
''It's not enough to talk about efforts we've made and failed. We need to talk about people who know how to do this,'' Connecticut Sen Chris Dodd said yesterday.
''We've been through six years of on-the-job training. We now need leadership in the country that can truly bring people together to get this done,'' he said.
Earlier this week Clinton became the last of the top Democratic candidates to roll out all of her proposals for an overhaul of the health care system and to provide coverage for 47 million uninsured Americans, one of the prime issues in the November 2008 White House race.
Clinton's proposal would mandate coverage for uninsured Americans but maintain a role for private insurance companies in what she said would be a simplified system with more choices for consumers.
Clinton said she would not repeat the mistakes of 1994 and was ready to lead a new effort.
HEALTH CARE REFORM 'GOING TO BE HARD' ''Will it be hard? I know that better than anybody, it's going to be hard,'' Clinton said. ''We're going to work together on this, but I think my experience, having gone through it, makes me a lot better prepared to deal with it and get it done.'' Clinton, who leads the Democratic field in national opinion polls, has been at times a polarizing political figure who angers Republicans and energizes conservatives.
Without pointing a finger specifically at Clinton, her rivals said the job of passing a health insurance plan required a unifying figure.
''If you look at all of our plans, there's not a whole lot of difference between them,'' said Delaware Sen Joseph Biden.
''But the fact is that it really is going to take someone who is going to be able to take on the insurance industry. They spent 250 billion dollars last time ... to poke holes in the Clinton plan.
They're going to spend half a trillion dollars this time.'' Former North Carolina Sen John Edwards, the first Democratic contender to offer a health care plan early this year, made note of Clinton's late arrival with a plan.
''I'm proud of the fact that, you know, six, seven months later, Senator Clinton came out with a plan that is very similar to mine,'' Edwards said.
The debate, co-sponsored by the elderly advocacy group AARP and Iowa Public Television, was billed as a discussion of health care, retirement and economic issues, matters of critical importance to those aged 50 and older.
The audience for the debate was a core constituency in Iowa, where the state Democratic Party said 64 per cent of the people who participated in the party caucuses in 2004 were age 50 or older.
Clinton's chief rival in national polls, Illinois Sen Barack Obama, did not attend the debate, having vowed to only participate in party-sanctioned debates like the one next week in New Hampshire.
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen Mike Gravel were not invited because they do not have active Iowa campaigns.
REUTERS AK BST0742