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Democrats talk up change in last debate before Iowa caucuses

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  • NEW: Sen. Hillary Clinton portrays herself as agent of change at debate
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(CNN) -- Sen. Hillary Clinton on Thursday tried to portray herself as the candidate most able to bring about change at the Democratic presidential hopefuls' final debate before next month's Iowa caucuses.

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The Democratic candidates face off Thursday in their final debate before the January 3 Iowa caucuses.

"Everyone wants change. Well, everybody on this stage has an idea about how to get change," Clinton said.

"Some believe you get change by demanding it. Some believe you get it by hoping for it. I believe you get it by working hard for change."

Thursday's debate, sponsored by The Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Television, comes as recent polls show Clinton losing her lead nationally weeks before Iowa's January 3 caucuses.

Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut said the first thing he'd try to change is the "discourse, the shrillness of the discussion in this country."

He said the issues raised at the debate depend on having a president who can heal the country's divisions.

"We care about the same things. We want the same things. We've got leadership that appeals to the divisions, not the unity we all feel as Americans," he said.

The Democrats kicked off the last debate before the caucuses by weighing in on the country's financial situation.

When asked if it would be a priority to balance the federal budget every year, Sen. Barack Obama said, "We are not going to be able to dig ourselves out of that hole in one or two years.

"If we can get on a path of sustained growth, if we can end the war in Iraq, end some of the special interest loopholes and earmarks that have been clogging up the system, I think we can return to a path of a balanced budget," the senator from Illinois said.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he would push for line-item veto authority to balance the budget as president.

"Balancing the budget should be viewed as an opportunity to have economic growth in this country," he said.

Asked about when tax increases are necessary and appropriate, Clinton said the people of Iowa "feel as though they're standing on a trapdoor."

"They are one pink slip, one missed mortgage payment, one medical diagnosis away from falling through," she said.

Clinton said she wants to restore the tax rates of the '90s.

"That means raising taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. I want to keep the middle-class tax cuts," she said.

Clinton also said the North American Free Trade Agreement should be changed.

"I want to be a president who focuses on smart, pro-American trade," she said. "I'm going to go to the international community and get the kind of enforceable agreements and standards on labor and environment that we have been seeking as Democrats."

Given 30 seconds to make a statement, former Sen. John Edwards said jobs, the middle class, health care and the environment are at risk because of "corporate power and corporate greed in Washington."

In his 30-second statement, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware said ending the war in Iraq would be one his priorities.

"Folks talk about this election being about experience or change. It's really about action and pragmatic solutions," he said. "Leadership is also about knowing who you are, what you believe, and what your priorities are, and what you'll do. In my case, I'll start by ending that war in Iraq."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Mike Gravel, who had both participated in earlier debates, were not invited to Thursday's event because they did not meet standards established by the organizers, which include having a campaign office in the Hawkeye State

With her 20-point lead in New Hampshire gone and her national edge deteriorating, Clinton now faces a wide-open race.

Many political observers saw Clinton as the "inevitable" Democratic presidential nominee a few months ago, but Obama has steadily chipped away at her lead in recent months.

In a CNN/WMUR poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire and released Wednesday, Clinton and Obama are in a statistical dead heat in New Hampshire, which will hold the nation's first primary January 8. Clinton's 1-point lead over Obama, 31 percent to 30 percent, is within the poll's margin of error of 5 percentage points. Edwards came in third at 16 percent.

Recent polls also show the race tightening nationally. When the Democrats debated last in Las Vegas, Nevada, in November, Clinton led Obama 44 percent to 25 percent, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll. Now, a CNN/Opinion Research poll shows Clinton with a narrower lead nationally over Obama, 40 percent to 30 percent. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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