By NEDRA PICKLER
Associated Press Writer
ORANGEBURG, S.C. (AP)- Democratic presidential hopefuls flashed their anti-war credentials Thursday night, heaping criticism on President Bush's Iraq policy in the first debate of the 2008 campaign.
"The first day I would get us out of Iraq by diplomacy," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, one of eight rivals on the debate stage.
"If this president does not get us out of Iraq, when I am president, I will," pledged Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
But Clinton found herself on the receiving end of criticism moments later when former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said she or anyone else who voted to authorize the war should "search their conscience."
Edwards, in the Senate at the time, also cast his vote for the invasion, but he has since apologized for it.
Of the eight foes participating in the debate at South Carolina State University, four voted earlier in the day to support legislation that cleared Congress and requires the beginning of a troop withdrawal by Oct. 1. The legislation sets a goal of a complete withdrawal by April 1, 2008.
"We are one signature away from ending this war," said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. He said if Bush won't change his mind about vetoing the bill, Democrats need to work on rounding up enough Republican votes to override him.
In addition to Obama and Clinton, Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut also cast votes in favor of the legislation.
Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio also participated in the debate, lesser-funded contenders who seemed most eager to challenge their rivals.
Bush is barred by the Constitution from running for re-election next fall, and the result is an extraordinarily early start to the campaign to succeed him.
The debate - nine months before the kickoff Iowa caucuses - was 90 minutes long without opening or closing statements from the candidates. A similar format awaits GOP candidate next Thursday.
A ground rule limiting answers to 60 seconds made for a rapid-fire debate but prevented follow-up questions when any of the eight sidestepped - as when Clinton and Biden avoided saying whether they agreed with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's assessment that the Iraq war is lost.
Republicans rebutted from a distance.
"On every issue, from the war on terror to keeping our taxes low and our economy strong, Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and others are out of touch with the values of the people of South Carolina and all of America," GOP chairman Robert Duncan said in a statement issued moments after the debate ended.
While Iraq dominated the debate's early moments, Edwards was asked about having paid for a $400 haircut from campaign donations rather than from his own wallet.
"That was a mistake, which we remedied," he said. A wealthy former trial lawyer, he recalled once having gone to dinner at a restaurant as a young child and having to leave because his father could not afford the prices.
"I've not forgotten where I came from," he said.
Five of the eight - Gravel, Biden, Dodd, Kucinich and Richardson - raised their hands when moderator Brian Williams of NBC News asked whether they had ever had a gun in their home.
Asked about a recent Supreme Court ruling that upheld a ban on so-called partial birth abortions, several of the contenders replied they would not impose a litmus test on their own nominees to the high court.
At the same time, they stressed their support for abortion rights, and said their appointees to the bench would reflect that. "Any of my appointments to the high court would necessarily reflect my thinking," said Kucinich, who did not mention that he opposed abortion rights until switching positions before he ran for the White House in 2004.
There were moments of levity, as when Williams referred to Biden's reputation for "verbosity" and asked whether he had the discipline to be a player on the world stage.
"Yes," the Delaware lawmaker replied with uncharacteristic brevity.
Perhaps because the campaign is still in its early stages, there was little cross-stage criticism.
Kucinich challenged Obama at one point for once having said all options were on the table with respect to Iran. "You're setting the stage for another war," the Ohio lawmaker said.
"I think it would be a profound mistake for us to initiate a war with Iran," Obama replied. "But have no doubt, Iran possessing nuclear weapons will be a major threat to us and to the region."
The debate was about 40 minutes old when Clinton made the first mention of her husband, the former president. Responding to a question about the recent shooting spree at Virginia Tech, she began by saying, "I remember very well when I accompanied Bill to Columbine" - the Colorado high school that was the scene of another shooting spree a decade ago.
On another issue, several of the contenders talked of the need to expand health care coverage, and Obama sketched a few details of a plan that critics have said is light on specifics.
He said he would allow the uninsured to buy into a plan like federal employees have, improve technology to cut costs, and provide government-funded catastrophic insurance.
Not surprisingly, Bush's Iraq war policy found no supporters on the debate stage.
"I am proud that I opposed this war from the start," said Obama - a jab at those on the stage who voted to authorize the invasion.
"The president has a fundamentally flawed policy," said Biden. "The president should start off by not vetoing the legislation he says he will veto."
Dodd said Bush was pursuing a "failed policy."
Kucinich jabbed at the senators on stage, saying it made no sense to oppose the war and then turn around and vote for more money as they did. The Ohio lawmaker voted against the legislation that cleared Congress earlier in the day.