HANOVER, N H, Sep 27 (Reuters) Democratic presidential candidates pounced on rival Hillary Clinton for her positions on Iran and Iraq in a debate as they sought to undercut her status as the campaign front-runner.
And after a week in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad angered Americans with a defiant visit to New York, the Democrats vowed to pursue a diplomatic solution to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.
The cross-fire on the campus of Dartmouth College came at the first debate of the critical autumn season leading up to the early voting contests in January ahead of the November 2008 election to replace President George W Bush.
Former North Carolina Sen John Edwards, sitting in third place in most national polls and needing a breakthrough performance, led the attack against Clinton, the New York senator enjoying a lead in the polls.
He criticized her for voting earlier in the day in Washington to approve a nonbinding motion calling on the State Department to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard as ''a foreign terrorist rganization,'' which Edwards said was a potential first step toward war against Iran.
''I have no intention of giving George Bush the authority to take the first step on a road to war with Iran,'' Edwards said, pointedly mentioning that two other candidates on stage, Delaware Sen Joe Biden and Connecticut Sen Christopher Dodd, voted against the measure.
Long-shot candidate Mike Gravel jumped on Clinton as well, saying, ''I am ashamed of you, Hillary, for voting for it.'' After a loud laugh at the often-comical Gravel, Clinton defended her vote.
She said it would allow the US government to designate the Revolutionary Guard ''as a terrorist organization which gives us the options to be able to impose sanctions on the primary leaders to try to begin to put some teeth into all this talk about dealing with Iran.'' ENEMIES AND FRIENDS Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, in second place in the polls despite leading in fund-raising, reiterated his position that he would engage in direct talks with Iran, a pledge Clinton has said shows Obama is too inexperienced to be president.
''We've got to talk to our enemies and not just our friends,'' Obama said.
But he stopped short of engaging in direct attacks on Clinton, despite wide speculation ahead of the debate that he would do so to reassure donors disappointed that despite his money advantage, he has been unable to break through against her.
Iraq was a dominant theme of the debate as Democrats seek a strategy to force Bush to end his troop build-up strategy, which leave as many as 100,000 troops in Iraq by the time the next president is inaugurated in January 2009.
Edwards criticized Clinton's position that she would not rule out US troops engaging in some combat missions in Iraq if she were to win the election.
''To me that's a continuation of the war,'' Edwards said.
''Combat missions mean that the war is continuing. I believe the war needs to be brought to an end.'' The statement put Clinton on the defensive.
''There may be a continuing counter-terrorism mission,'' she said, while adding that ''the vast majority'' of American troops would be out of Iraq by 2013.
But Edwards, Clinton and Obama could not pledge to bring all US troops out of Iraq by the end of their prospective first term in 2013.
''I think it's hard to project four years from now,'' said Obama.
But he vowed that if elected, he would drastically reduce America's military presence in Iraq, limiting it to protecting the US embassy, humanitarian workers and carrying out counter-terrorism activities.
REUTERS ARB RK0850