With contrasting war story, Corzine stands by Clinton

Although presidential favorite Sen. Hillary Clinton is waging a dead-heat dogfight with Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John Edwards in Iowa, Gov. Jon Corzine today said he’s confident that the establishment candidate will prevail, and refuses to criticize her initial thumbs up vote on the Iraq War.

"She’s very credible, and she was very responsible in the way she took her position," said the governor, who last spring stood on the steps of City Hall in Elizabeth with a cavalcade of Jersey politicians behind him, and embraced Clinton as his presidential choice.

The early endorsement dismayed anti-war Democrats who believe Clinton rolled over in the face of post 9-11 political pressure when she voted to give President George W. Bush the authority to go to War in Iraq. Among the other Democratic presidential contenders, senators Chris Dodd, Joseph Biden and former Sen. John Edwards also gave the nod to Bush.

"Who could have been fooled by that idiot?" said Bill Brown of New Jersey for Dennis Kucinich. "Anybody with any sense knew he was lying."

Brown is supporting Kucinich in no small part because the progressive Congressman from Ohio voted no on the war resolution. "He had it right from the beginning," said Brown.

By that standard, so did Corzine, who as a senator in 2002 voted against giving Bush the authority to go to war. "We had too many different explanations and not a single compelling explanation," said Corzine. "There was a lot of dissonance with respect to intelligence and weapons of mass destruction, and the threat that Iraq was to the United States."

A former Marine, Corzine wasn’t outright against giving Bush leeway in addressing Saddam Hussein, and he found himself in hardcore mulling mode as senators Richard Durbin and Carl Levin fought with Sen. Joe Lieberman over the war resolution.

"I was on the fence close to the end," he said.

The difference-maker might have been his closeness to Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who at that time was the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "He knew a lot more than I did," said Corzine, "and he confirmed that there was a reason to be uncertain."

When Corzine voted against the resolution along with 22 other senators, his favorable rating took a nosedive, from 60 to 40% before it bottomed out in the high thirties. In his run for governor two years later, he highlighted his Iraq War vote as proof of sound judgement, and as proof that he wasn’t afraid to buck the establishment.

Unlike Clinton, her critics argue.

In 2002, the senator from New York issued a stern, caveat-filled message to Bush urging the president to exhaust diplomatic options in Iraq – just before she authorized him to use force.

"Even though the resolution before the Senate is not as strong as I would like in requiring the diplomatic route first and placing highest priority on a simple, clear requirement for unlimited inspections, I will take the President at his word that he will try hard to pass a UN resolution and will seek to avoid war, if at all possible.

On the presidential campaign trail she has attempted to use her affirmative vote on Iraq as evidence of her healthy respect for the importance of granting discretionary power to the president in a time of crisis. On that score she faces, significantly, an apologetic Edwards, who says he was wrong to vote for the war resolution, and Obama, who as early as 2002 described a pre-emptive strike in Iraq as "dumb."

The polls in Iowa have tightened into a statistical tie, with Obama in front at 30%, followed by Clinton at 26% and Edwards at 22%. Having fallen from the ramparts of power as a banged up losing vice presidential candidate in 2004, dusted off ex-Sen. Edwards is now running as a Washington outsider.

As a newcomer with three years of on-the-job training in Washington, Obama bills himself as an alternative to the establishment and to Clinton, whose attitudes he characterizes as "Bush-Cheney-lite."

"This is someone who had the intestinal fortitude to stand up against the war in Iraq because he knew it was wrong," Keith Hovey, lead organizer for NJ for Obama told a charged-up crowd in Princeton last month.

But there’s a difference between voicing opposition and actually voting no while in the full glare of a skeptical constituency, Corzine argues. "He was not someone who was in the Congress and part of the debate," the governor said of Obama.

As for Clinton, the governor said he does not believe her vote would place her in an intractably John Kerry-like general election posture. "More important (than the Iraq War resolution)," said Corzine, "is we have to focus not on the past, but on moving forward."

Longtime street-level opponents of the war say they have done everything in their power to stop it from the beginning, before the war vote in Congress: from lobbying in the halls of government, to marching, to sending out email after email. They admit it’s hard to find comfort in the arms of a Clinton candidacy.

"We are concerned about implications of what we’ve done in Iraq," said Madelyn Hoffman, executive director of New Jersey Peace Action. "It’s extremely important to have someone in the White House who has been consistently against the war."

Hoffman said the mid-term elections in 2006 in which Democrats regained the majority in both the U.S. House and in the Senate, demonstrated that people nationwide wanted to see an end to war in Iraq. Not unlike his fierce rival for the presidency, Obama, said Hoffman, "could not pledge to bring the troops home."

"What’s happened is the U.S. Congress has not acted on the will of the people," said Hoffman. "If we want our representative democracy to stay intact, we need not only a person in the White House but people in the House and Senate to do what the people want done. Right now it appears there are again no lines between the two major parties and it’s frustrating to people."

Foundationally, Corzine insists that Democrats, more than Republicans, are committed to the idea that people’s personal lives are their own business. He said the credo of his party, "Is that those who have benefited the most must be there to invest the most to create a productive society, and it need not be done in a uxorious manner." On that unified basis the Democrats – and Clinton – will win back the White House, however starkly their pasts diverge on one historic vote, said Corzine. With contrasting war story, Corzine stands by Clinton