Story Highlights• Democratic presidential candidates criticize President Bush's Iraq policy
• Lower-tier candidates Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel show aggression
• Top-tier candidates mostly genial, even finding common ground on core issues
• Former Sen. John Edwards calls $400 haircuts a mistake
By Richard Shumate
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ORANGEBURG, South Carolina (CNN) -- The calendar on the wall may read 2007, but the nation's political calendar flipped to 2008 on Thursday night for a Democratic presidential debate.
Eight hopefuls took the stage in the first bona fide event of the campaign season, aiming most of their sharpest barbs at President Bush in general and the war in Iraq in particular.
During the 90-minute event at South Carolina State University -- billed as the "earliest presidential debate ever" by its sponsor, MSNBC -- the top-tier candidates largely kept their rhetorical elbows in check, even finding common ground on core Democratic issues such as health care and the environment. (Watch the White House hopefuls land low-impact jabs )
"This war is a disaster. We must end this war," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador who called for getting all U.S. troops out by the end of 2007. (Watch Richardson talk about what he wanted to accomplish in debate)
"The president seems determined not to change course, despite the fact that we are not gaining ground," said Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.
However, Clinton was taken to task by Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio after she said that if "I knew then what I now know," she would not have voted for the 2003 congressional resolution authorizing Bush to take military action in Iraq.
"That information was available to everyone, and, if you made the wrong choice, we're auditioning here for president of the United States," said Kucinich, who voted against the resolution. "People have to see who had the judgment and the wisdom not to go to war in the first place."
Kucinich also chided senators on the stage who have criticized the war but voted Thursday for an appropriations bill that funds military operations. The bill calls for a withdrawal of combat troops by April 2008.
"I think it's inconsistent to tell the American people that you oppose the war and, yet, you continue to fund the war," he said.
Clinton and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware were both asked whether they agreed with assessments by some that the war in Iraq has been lost. Neither of them answered directly.
"This is not America's war to win or lose," Clinton said. "We have given the Iraqi people the chance to have freedom, to have their own country. It is up to them."
Biden answered the question by saying, "This is not a game show." (Watch Biden rate his performance )
"This is not win or lose. The fact of the matter is that the president has a fundamentally flawed policy," he said.
Thursday's debate was the first face-to-face showdown between Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the two front-runners in the Democratic field.
They stood next to each other at the center of the stage, addressed each other by their first names and, on a couple of occasions, agreed with each other's points.
However, when he was called upon to discuss the war, Obama did draw a distinction between himself and the former first lady.
"I am proud that I opposed this war from the start, because I thought that it would lead to the disastrous conditions that we've seen on the ground in Iraq," he said.
When Clinton was asked why she seems to engender such passionate opposition among Republicans, she replied that "it may have something to do with the fact that I have stood up for what I've believed in."
"I take it as a perverse form of flattery, actually, that if they weren't worried, they would not be so vitriolic in their criticism of me," she said.
Clinton has seen her once-commanding lead shrink in recent months as Obama, serving his first term in the Senate, has surged in the polls.
Together, the two candidates raised more than $50 million in the first three months of the year, and their headline-grabbing competition has left the rest of the field looking around for political oxygen.
Republican National Committee Chairman Robert M. Duncan released a statement saying the debate "could not have been more predictable."
"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," he said.
Edwards: 'High-falutin' language is not enough'
In Thursday's debate, Edwards, who most polls show third among announced candidates, made a plea for putting substance over style, saying, "High-falutin' language is not enough."
"I think we have a responsibility, if you want to be president of the United States, to tell the American people what it is you want to do," said Edwards, who was the party's vice presidential nominee in 2004.
However, Edwards was called on to address a style controversy of his own, when he was asked how he reconciled his emphasis on combating poverty with the recent disclosure that $400 in campaign funds were used to pay for his haircut.
"That was a mistake, which we've remedied," he said. "But if the question is ... whether I live a privileged and blessed lifestyle now, the answer to that's 'yes.' A lot of us do. But it's not where I come from, and I've not forgotten where I come from."
The other candidates taking part in Thursday's debate were Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Mike Gravel, a former senator from Alaska.
Biden drew laughs when asked whether, given his penchant for "verbosity," he would have the discipline needed to represent the United States on the world stage.
"Yes," was Biden's one-word reply.
Gravel, who left the Senate more than 26 years ago and is little known nationally, was the most aggressive of all the candidates, calling on Congress to bring the Iraq war to an immediate end by passing a law that would make it a felony for the Bush administration to continue to prosecute it.
He also said some of the top-tier candidates in the Democratic field "frighten me."
South Carolina is scheduled to hold the first Democratic primary in the South in just over nine months. The outcome could have an significant effect on the overall race because up to 26 other states may hold nominating contests a week later in what could become a de facto national primary.
The primary in South Carolina will also be an important test of the candidates' appeal among black voters. The setting for Thursday's debate was South Carolina State, an historically black college in Orangeburg.
Clinton and Obama have been competing hard for the support of black voters. The South Carolina primary will also be a key event for Edwards, who was born in the state and represented neighboring North Carolina in the Senate.
CNN's Candy Crowley contributed to this report.
Former Sen. John Edwards, left, and Sens. Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton answer questions put to them by NBC's Brian Williams.