The candidates on stage in Des Moines
(CNN) - At a debate Sunday in the critical showdown state of Iowa, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama worked to counter suggestions that he is too inexperienced for the job, while Sen. Hillary Clinton fended off attacks from outgoing White House political adviser Karl Rove that voters perceive her too negatively.
"Is Barack Obama ready to be president, experienced enough to be president?" moderator George Stephanopoulos asked, presenting the first question of the debate hosted by ABC's "This Week" in Des Moines, Iowa - the first state in the nation to choose party nominees.
Clinton was asked about criticisms from outgoing White House political adviser Karl Rove that her negative ratings could hurt her in a general election.
The eight Democrats generally avoided outright attacks on each other, though they took the opportunity to note disagreements, particularly on issues of foreign policy.
The question about Obama triggered a renewed discussion of his vow, made during a previous debate, that he would meet with dictators - without preconditions - during his first year in office. Clinton and others have said that such a commitment would remove a critical bargaining chip in dealing with problematic foreign governments.
Clinton answered the question Sunday by discussing her own campaign goals and experience - though, when pressed, noted that she did have a "specific disagreement" with Obama on that front. "I think the next president will face some of the most difficult international dangerous threats and challenges that any president has faced in a very long time," she said.
The senator from New York added, "When you've got that big an agenda facing you, you should not telegraph to our adversaries that you're willing to meet with them without preconditions during the first year in office."
Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware also reiterated their disagreements with Obama on the issue.
But Obama said he doesn't see much difference between his position and theirs. "I think that there's been some political maneuvering taking place over the last couple of weeks," the senator from Illinois said.
Though he added that there is substantive difference between him and Clinton over meeting with adversaries, he added, "I think that strong countries and strong presidents meet and talk with our adversaries."
Clinton and Obama also disagreed over his previous remarks that nuclear weapons should be off the table in dealing with Pakistan, where U.S. intelligence officials say al Qaeda-linked militants are holed up in tribal regions. Clinton has said it is not appropriate to take any option off the table on such a matter.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said Sunday that Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, "is not a wonderful leader, but he provides some stability in Pakistan. And there is a great risk, if he's overthrown, about a radical government taking over."
Musharraf is a key U.S. ally in the battle against al Qaeda.
When Clinton was asked about remarks from Rove, she attempted to cast her negative ratings in a positive light.
"But I find it interesting he's so obsessed with me. And I think the reason is because we know how to win," she said.
"The idea that you're going to escape the Republican attack machine and not have high negatives by the time they're through with you, I think, is just missing what's been going on in American politics for the last 20 years," Clinton added.
Noting the focus on Clinton and Obama, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said, "You know, I think that Sen. Obama does represent change. Sen. Clinton has experience. Change and experience: With me, you get both."