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War front-and-center as candidates prepare for debates

Story Highlights

• State senator says key question will be: "What is your position on the war?"
• Eight Democratic contenders to debate Sunday at St. Anselm College
• Ten Republican contenders debate in same venue on Tuesday
• First 2008 debates sponsored by CNN, WMUR, New Hampshire Union Leader
By Mark Preston
CNN Political Editor
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MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- What will New Hampshire voters be listening for when 18 presidential hopefuls square off Sunday and Tuesday in presidential debates? It depends on whom you ask, but on one issue, there is widespread agreement: People want to hear about Iraq.

"Certainly, they want to hear about the war," said New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat. "What is your position on the war? Where are we going with regard to the war? More and more servicemen are dying everyday, and people are seeing that.

"[The war] is close because of the number of National Guard people there," said D'Allesandro, who has not yet endorsed a candidate. "You are witnessing your friends and neighbors passing away or being killed." (Watch how the war is shaking up New Hampshire politics Video)

On Sunday, the eight Democratic contenders seeking their party's presidential nomination will appear together on stage before several hundred people -- the first time New Hampshire voters will be able to size up these candidates in a side-by-side comparison. Two days later, the 10 Republicans seeking the GOP nomination will debate the same top issues of the day. (Read the CNN Political Ticker for up-to-the-minute reports from New Hampshireexternal link)

U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, are considered the front runners in Sunday night's debate.

Both debates will be held on the campus of St. Anselm College and are sponsored by CNN, WMUR and the New Hampshire Union Leader. The Democratic debate will air live on CNN at 7 p.m. ET Sunday, and the Republicans will take the same stage at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday. The debates will also be streamed free of charge on CNN.com's Pipeline.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer will moderate the debates and WMUR's Scott Spradling and the Union Leader's Tom Fahey will pose questions to the Democratic and Republican candidates. WMUR's Jennifer Vaughn will moderate questions from the audience.

Looking beyond the war

Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta, a Republican who beat an incumbent Democrat in 2005, agrees that the war is front and center, but he stressed that it is not the only issue that New Hampshire Republicans are interested in hearing the candidates address.

"I can tell you, Republicans want to hear about domestic policy and what is going to be done to provide a more Republican approach to a more effective government," he said.

Besides differences on immigration, Iraq and a handful of other issues, the Democratic contenders so far are in lock-step as are the Republican candidates.

But this could change starting in New Hampshire. (Watch how the underdogs hope to shake up the race Video)

New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen said he thinks the campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, at least, has matured to the point where candidates should start to really differentiate themselves from their opponents in Tuesday's debate.

"The candidates will be more specifically drawing distinctions between each other," he said. "They are all against taxes, but they need to draw distinctions between each other on issues that Republicans agree on."

Democrats, too, must differentiate themselves

CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider said Democrats, save one, must differentiate themselves when they square off Sunday in the Democratic debate.

"All the candidates -- except Hillary Clinton -- have to try to shake up this race," he said. "They need to say something that gets Democrats to look at them fresh and say, 'Well now isn't that interesting? I didn't know that about this candidate.' (Watch how Clinton is relying on her New Hampshire friends Video)

"That means calling attention to your own strength or your opponent's weakness. In a field this crowded, candidates need an arresting sound bite -- something that will get played on the news over and over again, so that millions of people who did not see the debate will see the clip or hear about it. And take another look at the race."

Edwards, apparently frustrated by the first debate held in South Carolina in late April, told CNN's Dana Bash he's geared up for Sunday's debate.

"I will be strong. I will be forceful. I'll make clear what I want to do as president of the United States," he said.

But Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd said he doesn't think Sunday's debate will make or break his campaign.

"Tonight is an important night, I don't minimize that all at, but each day is important," Dodd said.

Dodd is currently among the second tier of candidates in the Democratic race.

Branching out

We may also see the Republican candidates begin to distance themselves from the White House to show their independence from President Bush, whose job performance is viewed unfavorably by a majority of Americans.

"The Republican candidates do not want to talk about George W. Bush," Schneider said. "They want to talk about the future. The smartest thing for a Republican to do is lay out a vision for the future that's positive, optimistic and new. Because the only way a Republican will win this race is by making a credible argument for change and minimize their ties to Bush."

Meanwhile, Democrats must balance their criticism of the war at the same time demonstrating that they would be a strong commander in-chief. (Watch Democrats' game plans for Sunday's debate Video)

Regardless of political party, a major theme of 2008 will be about "change" although Democrats and Republicans will disagree on its definition. For Democrats it means a new president, while Republicans view it as how the job as president continues to evolve in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"I do think in 2008, the election will be about turning a new page and moving in a new direction," Cullen said.

Why is the center of the political universe focused on New Hampshire, you ask? Because the Granite State holds the first presidential primary and the path to the presidency runs through Manchester, Portsmouth, Keene, Concord, Nashua and dozens of other New Hampshire towns. New Hampshire, much like its kin Iowa, can make or break a presidential bid, and candidates take notice.

CNN's Keating Holland, Dana Bash and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.


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