Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, like most of the seven other candidates who weighed in at the first Democratic presidential debate on Thursday, generally played it safe. But on the issue of terrorism he sharply deviated from some of his competitors, arguing that while it’s important to build alliances through diplomacy, we must also use lethal military force against terrorists.

“Tell me, Barack,” Mike Gravel, a former senator from Alaska, later shouted, “who do you want to nuke?”

Obama smiled and responded calmly, “I’m not planning to nuke anybody right now, Mike. I promise.”

The 90-minute debate, held at the historically Black South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, was the first time the eight Democratic presidential hopefuls faced off on the same stage. The candidates universally condemned the war in Iraq, a subject that dominated the conversation. Other topics included health care, abortion and gun control. The participants also defended themselves against their most negative critiques.

“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,” said Hillary Clinton of the opposition she provokes among Republicans. The junior senator from New York went on to say that she believes the country is ready for universal health care, adding that she has experience on the issue from trying to achieve it in 1994 during her husband’s administration.

Former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, whose campaign emphasizes combating poverty, addressed the controversy over his use of campaign funds for a $400 haircut. Edwards clarified that the use of campaign funds was a mistake. “But if the question is whether I live a privileged and blessed lifestyle now, the answer to that is yes,” he continued. “But it’s not where I come from. And I’ve not forgotten where I come from.”

The candidates agreed on most issues, such as safeguarding abortion and prohibiting access to guns by people with mental illness. Gravel and Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio took the strongest positions against the Iraq war.

“I think it’s inconsistent to tell the American people that you oppose the war, and yet you continue to vote to fund the war,” Kucinich said in reference to the Senate’s recent passage of a bill that would fund the war while also setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Gravel argued that the Senate should end the conflict by passing a law making it a felony for the troops to stay in Iraq.

“But look,” Obama rebutted. “We are one signature away or 16 votes away from ending this war.… If the president is not going to sign the bill that has been sent to him, then what we have to do is gather up 16 votes in order to override his veto.”

Other particpants in the debate included Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. The Republican candidates will hold their first debate May 3 at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.

Talk about it!: Which of the Democratic presidential contenders do you believe won the party’s first debate?