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Sweet Las Vegas Dem debate: Partial Transcript

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LAS VEGAS--First portion of Democratic debate on CNN.

click for transcript...


NOVEMBER 15, 2007












BLITZER: Welcome to the Cox Pavilion. We're at the University
of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Tonight, a little bit of history. This will be the first -- the
first -- presidential debate ever in this state, one of the fastest
growing, most prosperous in the country, and a state with a new
starring role in the kickoff events of this, the primary and caucus
season, right up there with Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Voters here will assemble and caucus on Saturday, January 19th,
and that's only two months away.

Over the next two hours in this debate -- officially sanctioned,
by the way, by the National Democratic Party -- the candidates for
president of the United States will be questioned by both journalists,
as well as ordinary people, undecided voters likely to attend those
caucuses here in Nevada.

The program tonight is going to be a little different, as well.
As you can see, the candidates are not yet on stage. The traveling
press pool is here. They're awaiting the arrival and the big photo
opportunity. We thought, "You know what?," we're going to bring that
to you as well tonight.

So let's get started.

First up, Senator John Edwards.


Next up, Senator Chris Dodd.


BLITZER: Senator Barack Obama.


Senator Hillary Clinton.


Congressman Dennis Kucinich.


BLITZER: Governor Bill Richardson.


Senator Joe Biden.


The Democratic presidential candidates.


BLITZER: All right, while they continue the photo op over here,
I want to bring in some of our reporters and analysts to give us a
sense of what we can expect tonight. We've got the best political
team watching all of this unfold.

Gloria Borger, what are you going to be looking for as we get
ready? This debate is about to begin.

GLORIA BORGER: Well, we know that tonight's going to be a really
tough night for Hillary Clinton.

BORGER: Barack Obama and John Edwards are going to challenge her
not only on her positions on immigration, but on all kinds of issues.

They have to break through one of them as the alternative to
Hillary Clinton here tonight. We're also going to be watching to see
how she handles their attacks.

Wolf, I think she has to engage tonight. She can't just float
above it all; she has to take them on, as well, and I expect her to do

BLITZER: John King, what are you looking for?

JOHN KING, CNN: I think Gloria is dead on. The pressure is,
most of all, on Senator Clinton, who has to reassert her command of
this race after a tough few weeks.

But also, Wolf, there are significant policy disagreements. The
Democrats agree, for the most part, on the big issue. But there are
also significant policy disagreements on immigration, and also on what
would the role of U.S. troops be in Iraq.

All of the Democrats say they would get out as soon as possible,
but they do have disagreements about whether the troops remaining
during that pull-out would, say, block Iranian influence. That's a
disagreement between Obama and Clinton.

As we get closer and closer to Iowa, the voters are tuned in,
paying much more close attention to the details and there's a great
opportunity for them tonight.

BLITZER: Campbell Brown and John Roberts are going to joining me
in the questioning during the first hour of this debate.

Campbell, give us a sense of what you're looking at.

BROWN: Well, just to follow up a little bit on what Gloria has
said, it will be interesting to watch Senator Clinton -- and obviously
she is under a lot of pressure tonight, given her performance at the
last debate.

But what I think will be more interesting is whether she decides,
as some have suggested she should, to go after her opponents, not only
to aggressively defend herself, but to really get in there and mix it
up with Barack Obama and John Edwards, who have been most aggressive
in going after her.

Or will she do what she has tended to do in the previous debates,
which is sort of take the high road to try to stay focused on the
issues, and to continue to sort of portray herself as the inevitable

BLITZER: John, a quick thought from you, John Roberts?

ROBERTS: Well, it will be interesting to watch how John Edwards
and Barack Obama comport themselves tonight. They know that there is
a crack in Hillary Clinton's suit of armor. Can they get inside there
and wedge it open just a little bit more? It is a natural for John
Edwards to go in and try and do that. Barack Obama, he has a
different personality.

ROBERTS: He tends to shy away from direct conflict like that.
We'll see how strong he can be tonight.

BLITZER: Our Emmy Award-winning best political team on
television, and they're standing by. All that coming up.

And even before we begin watching all of this unfold, we want to
give some housekeeping items to all of you, on behalf of all of us.

First of all, I'd like to thank our hosts, the University of
Nevada, Las Vegas, the Nevada State Democratic Party...


... and the people of Nevada, so the candidates -- they don't
have to use up all of their valuable time doing it themselves. Thanks
to all of you.

The debate tonight will be in two halves. In the second part, we
will hear directly from some of this group of about 100 undecided
Nevada Democrats. We look forward to hearing what's on their minds
tonight. That's coming up.

But for roughly this, the first hour, questions will be asked by
CNN anchors Campbell Brown and John Roberts. We're more or less, by
the way, on the honor system, here tonight. There will be no loud
bells, no flashing lights. The candidates all know they'll have a
little bit more than a minute to respond to these opening questions.

BLITZER: If they lose track, I'll gently try to remind them.
Some answers, by the way, might even be less than a minute. You never

Then we'll try to spend the next six or seven minutes following
up on that specific subject. At my discretion, I'll ask either that
candidate or any of the other candidates here up on the stage to weigh
in on that topic.

We hope in the process to get a real conversation going on
important issues. There are few other rules other than this.

Candidates must stay on the topic of the original question. If
they stray or try to answer a question on another topic, I'll gently
try to stop them immediately, and then we'll move on to another
candidate for a question -- another candidate or a question, that is.

That's enough from me, at least for now.

So let's begin our questioning tonight, Campbell Brown.


BROWN: Senator Clinton, recently in an interview on CNN, you
said of the last debate that you weren't at your best that day.

BROWN: You stumbled on an important question involving illegal
immigration. But your opponents are saying that that's really part of
a larger pattern with you, that you often avoid taking firm positions
on controversial issues. And one of your opponents on this stage
calls this "the politics of parsing."

How do you respond to that?

CLINTON: Well, Campbell, I am happy to be here tonight. And
this pantsuit, it's asbestos tonight.


So I am aware that some people say that, but I think that the
American people know where I've stood for 35 years. I've been
fighting for issues affecting women and children, workers and

CLINTON: I've been fighting for universal health care.

And I know that people are looking at this campaign and
evaluating us, and I've put forth very specific policies about what I
will do as president.

Because this has to be a big election. This is going to be one
of the most important elections we've ever had in our country's
history. And it is important that we have a candidate who is tested
and a president who is ready to lead from day one.

And I'm perfectly comfortable leaving these assessments up to the
American people to make their judgments among us.

BLITZER: Let me bring in Senator Obama, because you've been
among those critical of Senator Clinton. You've suggested she's
triangulating, whatever that means, on some of the key issues. She's
running a textbook Washington campaign, you've suggested that.

I want you to explain, if you don't mind, Senator: What do you
mean by that?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, I'm really happy to be here in
Nevada, and I appreciate this opportunity.

OBAMA: Senator Clinton, I think, is a capable politician and I
think that she has run a terrific campaign.

But what the American people are looking for right now is
straight answers to tough questions, and that is not what we've seen
out of Senator Clinton on a host of issues -- on the issue of drivers'
licenses for illegal immigrants.

We saw in the last debate that it took not just that debate, but
two more weeks before we could a clear answer, in terms of where her
position was.

The same is true on Social Security. We have serious
disagreements about how we're going to make sure that Social Security
is there for the people who need it.

And what I'm absolutely convinced of is that, right now, we need
a different kind of politics. Everywhere I go all throughout Nevada,
people are struggling with health care, people are working harder for
less, they are having a tougher time saving, tougher time retiring.

And part of the reason is because they don't feel that Washington
is listening to them.

OBAMA: And what I want to do in this campaign is make certain
that we are breaking out of the gridlock and the partisanship and the
standard practices of Washington, and actually start listening to the
American people to get things done.

BLITZER: All right.

Senator Clinton, you want to respond?

CLINTON: Well, I hear what Senator Obama is saying, and he talks
a lot about stepping up and taking responsibility and taking strong

But when it came time to step up and decide whether or not he
would support universal health care coverage, he chose not to do that.
His plan would leave 15 million Americans out. That's about the
population of Nevada, Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire.

I have a universal health care plan that covers everyone. I've
been fighting this battle against the special interests for more than
15 years, and I am proud to fight this battle.

You know, we can have a different politics, but let's not forget
here that the people who we're against are not going to be giving up
without a fight. The Republicans are not going to vacate the White
House voluntarily. We have some big issues ahead of us, and we need
someone who is tested and ready to lead. I think that's what my
candidacy offers.


BLITZER: All right, Senator Obama.

OBAMA: Well, let's talk about health care right now because the
fact of the matter is -- the fact of the matter is that I do provide
universal health care.

OBAMA: The only difference between Senator Clinton's health care
plan and mine is that she thinks the problem for people without health
care is that nobody has mandated, forced them to get health care.
That's not what I'm seeing around Nevada.

What I see are people who would love to have health care. They
desperately want it. But the problem is they can't afford it, which
is why we have put forward legislation...


We've put forward a plan that makes sure that it is affordable to
get health care that is as good as the health care that I have as a
member of Congress. That's what the American people are looking for,
that's what they deserve and that's what I intend to provide as
president of the United States.

CLINTON: I can't let that go unanswered. You know, the most
important thing here is to level with the American people. Senator
Obama's health care plan does not cover everyone. He starts with
children, which is admirable. I helped to create the children's
health insurance program back in 1997. I am totally committed to
making sure every single child is covered.


He does not mandate the kind of coverage that I do, and I provide
a health care tax credit under my American health choices plan so that
every American will be able to afford the health care. I open up the
congressional plan, but there is a big difference between Senator
Obama and me. He starts from the premise of not reaching universal
health care.


BLITZER: Senator Obama, we're going to have a lot more on health
care. Go ahead. Go ahead.


OBAMA: I will be very brief on this issue. Hillary states that
she wants -- she states that she wants to mandate health care
coverage, but she is not garnishing people's wages to make sure that
they have it.

BLITZER: OK, please.

Go ahead.


OBAMA: She is not -- she is not enforcing this mandate. And I
don't think that the problem with the American people is that they are
not being forced to get health care. The problem is they can't afford
it. And that is why my plan provides...


... the mechanism to make sure that they can.


BLITZER: All right. We're going to get back on health care
shortly. Because we have a lot more to talk about.

KUCINICH: But wait. The American people are entitled to a
debate here...

BLITZER: I want Senator Edwards to weight in. Because you have
spoken about the politics of parsing in your criticism of Senator
Clinton. I want you to explain what that means.

EDWARDS: Well, can I say, first, nobody on this stage is
perfect, and that certainly includes me. And I don't claim
perfection; far from it.

What I would say is, that the issue is whether we can have a
president that can restore trust for the American people, in the
president of the United States.


Because I think this president has destroyed that trust. And I
think there are fair questions to be asked of all us, including
Senator Clinton.

EDWARDS: Senator Clinton says she will end the war. She also
says she will continue to keep combat troops in Iraq and continue
combat missions in Iraq.

She says she will turn up the heat on George Bush and the
Republicans, but when the crucial vote came on stopping Bush, Cheney
and the neocons, on Iran, she voted with Bush and Cheney.

On the issue of Social Security...


... on the issue of Social Security, she said, standing beside me
on the stage, that she would not do anything about the cap on Social
Security taxes, and she has said privately to people, because it's
been reported in the press, that in fact she would consider raising
that cap.

And the most important issue is she says she will bring change to
Washington, while she continues to defend a system that does not work,
that is broken, that is rigged and is corrupt; corrupted against the
interest of most Americans and corrupted...


BLITZER: All right...

EDWARDS: ... and corrupted for a very small, very powerful, very
well-financed group.

BLITZER: We're going to...

EDWARDS: So we have fundamental differences.

BLITZER: We're going to get to all of these issues, including
energy and Iran and everything else.

CLINTON: Well, Wolf, I've just been personally attacked again,
and I...

BLITZER: Senator Clinton, I'll let you respond because there was
a direct charge made against you.

CLINTON: Thank you.

BLITZER: Then we're going to bring in everybody. Everyone's
going to get time tonight; don't worry, we got a lot of time.

Go ahead.


CLINTON: Well, you know, I respect all of my colleagues on this


CLINTON: And, you know, we're Democrats and we're trying to
nominate the very best person we can to win.

And I don't mind taking hits on my record on issues, but when
somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both
accurate and right out of the Republican playbook.


Because what I believe is important is that we put forth what we
stand for. I have been active for 35 years. The American people know
where I stand.

You know, Senator Edwards raised health care again -- when
Senator Edwards ran in 2004, he wasn't for universal health care. I'm
glad he is now.

CLINTON: But for him to be throwing this mud and making these
charges I think really detracts from what we're trying to do here
tonight. We need to put forth a positive agenda for America...

BLITZER: All right.

CLINTON: ... telling people what we're going to do when we get
the chance to go back to the White House.

BLITZER: Senator Edwards, we're going to give you a chance in a


We're going to give Senator Edwards a chance to respond. I want
Senator Biden to weigh in.

BIDEN: Oh no, no, no, no.


BLITZER: Senator Biden, I want you to weigh in.


BIDEN: Don't do it, no! Don't make me speak!

BLITZER: I want you to. Go ahead.


What do you think? Senator Biden, here's the question: What do
you think about this exchange among Democrats? Is that good for the
Democrats or is it bad?

BIDEN: Hey, look, let's get to it, folks. The American people
don't give a darn about any of this stuff that's going on up here.
Look, they're sitting -- no, seriously, think about it.

They're sitting down at their tables at night, they put their
kids to bed, and they're worried about whether or not their child is
going to run into a drug dealer on the way to school. They're worried
about whether or not they're going to be able to pay for their
mortgage because, even if they didn't have one of those subprime
mortgages, things are looking bad for them.

BIDEN: They're worrying about whether they're going to keep
their job. And they're worried about whether their son in the
National Guard's going to get killed in Iraq. Ladies and gentlemen...


Every political campaign gets to this place. And I'm not
criticizing any of the three people who are the ones who always get to
talk all the time at these things.



I'm not. I'm not. I'm not criticizing. But look, folks, let's
get straight to it here. This is not about experience. It's not
about change. It's about action.

Who among us is going to be able to, on day one, step in and end
the war? Who among us understands what to do about Pakistan? Who
among us is going to pick up the phone and immediately interface with
Putin and lay off Georgia because Saakashvili is in real trouble?

Who among us knows what they're doing? I have 35 years of
experience. While everyone's talking about their experience -- and
Hillary has great experience and John and the rest of them, I was
passing the Violence Against Women Act.

BIDEN: I was passing the crime bill. I was passing...

(UNKNOWN): You're right.


BLITZER: Let me just point out, everyone is going to have plenty
of time tonight. I want John Roberts to go ahead and ask the next
question, and then we'll bring everybody in, I promise.

ROBERTS: Senator Clinton, you were saying just a moment ago...



The question is not going to her, by the way. Reiterating what
you said, you said you think it is legitimate for you to take hits on
your record.

Well, some of those hits on your record have come from the far
right-hand side of the stage from Senator Edward, who has frequently
attacked you for flip-flopping.

Senator, you have changed your position on several issues. You
were for the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository before you were against
it. You were for the Iraq war before you were against it.

People change their positions. If it is fair for you to change
your position, is it not fair for her to change hers?

EDWARDS: It's absolutely fair. It's absolutely fair for people
to learn from their experience and grow and mature and change.
Anybody who's not willing to change based on what they learn is
ignorant, and everybody ought to be willing to do that.

That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying there's a difference
between that and saying the exact same two contrary things at exactly
the same time.

I mean, for example, just over the course of the last week,
Senator Clinton said in Washington that she would vote for the Peru
Trade Deal, and she said in Iowa, talking to union members, that she
wanted a moratorium on trade deals.

The important thing about this, though, is none of us -- none of
us -- because the reality is, and I want to add on to something that
Joe Biden said -- you know, before I came over here tonight, I was
thinking we're going to have this debate. When we finish, all of you
are going to be on television saying, "Oh, who scored points? Who won
the debate?"

All of us are going to be fine.

EDWARDS: The question is: Will America be fine?

Because what I saw...


... before we came over here, on your troll underneath the
screen, 35 million Americans, last year, went hungry; 37 million
people in this country live in poverty every day; 47 million Americans
have no health care coverage.

And there is a fundamental choice that everyone in this room, and
Democratic voters have to make. And that is, who do you believe will
take on this system and change it so that it's no longer rigged,
corrupt, and rigged against the interests...

BLITZER: All right. All right.

EDWARDS: ... of the American people.

That is the fundamental choice. And I think people are entitled
to know that they have choices. There's nothing personal about this.
This is about what America needs to be. This is about those 35
million people...

BLITZER: All right.

EDWARDS: ... who are hungry every single year. When is our
party going to show a little backbone and strength and courage and
speak up for those people who have been left behind?


BLITZER: All right. Hold on one second.

BLITZER: I want Senator Dodd to weigh in.

Senator Dodd, because you said -- made a statement earlier in the
week, and I'm quoting you now: you're, "surprised at just how angry
Senator Edwards has become," and you suggested, "He's not the same
person I once knew."


Go ahead and elaborate. Tell us what you mean.

DODD: Well, let me, I mean, pick up on this point here.

I think, first of all, we Democrats have a job to do, and that is
to unite this party, attract independents, Republicans who are
seeking change, to join us 12 months from now and elect a Democrat to
the White House and to hold on to the House and Senate. That's number


And it's going to take more than just getting people in our own
party to support us. We're going to have to reach out.

There's a shrillness to the debate. The American people want
results, they want the job done, exactly what Joe Biden talked about
here. But people get up in the morning and go to work, they sit
around and they worry about their jobs, their retirement, their health
care, this kids' education, and they wonder if anybody in Washington
is paying any attention to them and whether or not the job is being
done on their behalf.

And, frankly, when a campaign is about turning up the heat or
who's angrier or who's yelling louder, the American people turn off,
in terms of listening.

They want us to come together. They want a president that can
lead the country.

DODD: We want a Democratic candidate who can unite our party.
And I think if we waste time on the shrillness of this debate, then we
lose the American people.

BLITZER: All right.

DODD: So it's important to focus on those.


BLITZER: Governor Richardson, go ahead.

RICHARDSON: Well, by the way, I'm Bill Richardson. I'm Governor
of New Mexico.



And nice to meet you all.


I -- you know, it seems -- you know, it seems that John wants to
start a class war. It seems that Barack wants to start a generational
war. It seems that Senator Clinton, with all due respect on her plan
on Iraq, doesn't end the war.

All I want to do is give peace a chance.


And I say that because these are the fundamental issues. Do our
plans end the war? Do our plans make America energy-independent?


RICHARDSON: Do our plans -- do our plans give health care to
every American? Are we creating jobs and economic growth? Are we
resolving the real problems affecting this country?

You know, let's stop this mud-slinging. let's stop this going
after each other on character on trust. Let us debate the issues that
affect the American people, and let us be positive. Let's be


BLITZER: I just want to go down the line and ask everyone, and
then we're going to move on to the next question.

Just to be precise, because there was a little confusion thanks
to Senator Edwards earlier in the week -- I just want to make sure I
fully understand all of you Democrats.

Are you ready to commit, absolutely, positively that you will
support the Democratic nominee, no matter who that nominee is? No
ifs, ands or buts.

Senator Edwards?

EDWARDS: Is that a planted question?


BLITZER: Yes, I planted it.

EDWARDS: Yes, I absolutely will support the Democratic nominee
for president.

DODD: Absolutely.

CLINTON: Absolutely, yes.

KUCINICH: Only if they oppose war as an instrument of policy.


RICHARDSON: Yes, I will support the nominee.

BIDEN: Hell, no, I wouldn't support any of these guys.


No, I'm joking. Of course, I'm for them all.


BLITZER: Campbell, go ahead.

BROWN: All right, let's talk about the issues. Senator Obama, I
want to ask you about immigration. It's an important issue in this
state in particular. There are between 100,000 to 200,000 illegal
immigrants here in Nevada.

And you supported various benefits for illegal immigrants,
including drivers licenses and in-state college tuition. What do you
say to those Americans who say they are losing out because you would
give benefits to people who broke the laws of this country, who came
here illegally.

And then more generally, as president, where do you draw the line
when it comes to benefits for illegal immigrants?

OBAMA: I would say that they're justified in feeling frustrated
because this administration, the Bush administration, has done nothing
to control the problem that we have. We've had 5 million undocumented
workers come over the borders since George Bush took office.

OBAMA: It has become an extraordinary problem. The reason the
American people are concerned is because they are seeing their own
economic positions slip away.

Oftentimes, employers are exploiting these undocumented workers.
They're not paying the minimum wage. They're not observing worker
safety laws.

So what we have to do is create a comprehensive solution to the
problem. Now, I have already stated that as president I will make
sure that we finally have the kind of border security that we need.
That's step number one. Step number two is to take on employers.
Right now, an employer has more of a chance of getting hit by
lightning than be prosecuted for hiring an undocumented worker. That
has to change.

OBAMA: They have to be held accountable.


And when we do those things...


When we do those things, I believe that we can take the
undocumented workers, the illegal aliens who are here, get them out of
the shadows, make sure that they are subject to a stiff penalty, make
sure that they're learning English, make sure that they go to the back
of the line so they're not getting an advantage over people who came
here legally.

And when we do that, I think that we can, instead of shedding all
this heat, start shedding some light on the problem, and we can once
again be a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. That's what I
intend to do as president of the United States.

BLITZER: All right. I want to just press you on this point,
because it's a logical follow-up, and then I want to go and ask

On the issue that apparently tripped up Senator Clinton earlier,
the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, I take it,
Senator Obama, you support giving driver's licenses to illegal

Is that right?

OBAMA: When I was a state senator in Illinois, I voted to
require that illegal aliens get trained, get a license, get insurance
to protect public safety. That was my intention.


And -- but I have to make sure that people understand. The
problem we have here is not driver's licenses. Undocumented workers
do not come here to drive.


They don't go -- they're not coming here to go to the In-N-Out
Burger. That's not the reason they're here. They're here to work.
And so instead of being distracting by what has now become a wedge
issue, let's focus on actually solving the problem that this
administration, the Bush administration, had done nothing about it.

BLITZER: Well, let's go through everybody because I want to be
precise. I want to make sure the viewers and those of us who are here
fully understand all of your positions on this barring -- avoiding,
assuming -- there isn't going to be comprehensive immigration reform.

Do you support or oppose driver's licenses for illegal

OBAMA: I am not proposing that that's what we do.

1 Comment

Game set and match! Clinton has won the Democratic nomination.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on November 15, 2007 7:40 PM.

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