CARSON CITY, Nev. — A former senator, John Edwards, jabbed gently at Senator Clinton yesterday in the first all-candidates forum of the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign, saying her refusal to disavow a 2002 vote on Iraq was "between her and her conscience."
"It's not for me to judge," said Mr. Edwards, who — like Mrs. Clinton — voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq, but unlike her, has since apologized for his vote.
The event format did not permit Mrs. Clinton to respond to Mr. Edwards's swipe, which stood out on an afternoon in which Democrats launched serial attacks on President Bush's war policies.
"The worst we can do is tear each other down," said Governor Richardson of New Mexico, who called on his Democratic rivals to sign a pledge to avoid negative campaigning and concentrate their energy on taking the White House away from the Republicans next year.
Among Democratic presidential contenders, only Senator Obama skipped the event, which was hosted by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Union. The Illinois senator campaigned in Iowa instead.
The convergence of so many candidates underscored Nevada's newfound importance in the 2008 nominating campaign. The state will hold caucuses on January 19, five days after the lead-off Iowa caucuses and presumably only a few days before New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.
In their time on stage, several of the candidates made an explicit pitch for the votes of union members, stressing their backing for legislation designed to make it easier to join unions, for example.
Mr. Edwards, Mrs. Clinton, and others drew cheers when they voiced support for universal health coverage, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio vowed to pull America out of NAFTA soon after taking office in the White House.
But the Iraq war overshadowed all else at the two-hour event, Democrat after Democrat vying to show their eagerness to end America's participation in a conflict that has resulted in the deaths of more than 3,100 American troops.
"Sign me up. No negatives," Senator Biden of Delaware said just after Mr. Richardson made his appeal. Moments later, though, he spoke dismissively of congressional efforts merely to stop Mr. Bush's plan to deploy additional troops. "Don't talk about capping and all that. Do something," he said.
Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama support separate bills to prevent an increase in troop levels above those in effect in January.
Mr. Kucinich was more direct. He said he had voted against authorizing the war in 2002, adding, "People are looking for a president who does the right thing when it matters the most."
A former senator of Alaska, Mike Gravel, who is a quarter-century out of office, was the eighth candidate. "I don't think it's a big deal whether I get elected president or not," he said at one point.
Senator Dodd of Connecticut, the first to speak, brushed aside a suggestion from some administration allies that the withdrawal of troops from Iraq would create chaos.
"How much more chaos could there be in Baghdad than exists today?" he asked to applause from the audience at a union-sponsored event near the Nevada state capitol.
"Time has run out on what President Bush has tried to do in Iraq," said Mrs. Clinton when she took her turn on stage. She touted her legislation to begin a troop withdrawal within 90 days, and as she has repeatedly, declined to apologize for her vote to authorize the war in 2002.
A former Iowa governor, Tom Vilsack, struck a similar note. "I want to challenge every single one of you and ask a simple question, what have you done today? What have you done today to end this war in Iraq? It needs to be ended now. Not six days from now, not six months from now. Not six years from now. It needs to be ended now, and it is up to you," he said.
Mr. Edwards, who was the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee, said it was time to begin a troop withdrawal. "I voted for this war. I was wrong to vote for this war. I should never have voted for this war. I take responsibility for that. No one else is responsible for it."
An broadcaster with ABC News and former aide in President Clinton's White House, George Stephanopoulos, asked Mr. Edwards whether he had been referring to Mrs. Clinton.
"Well, whether it's good enough, I think it's between her and her conscience. It's not for me to judge," the former North Carolina senator said.