There is a big difference between ending the occupation in Iraq and saying you want to end it when, in fact, you don’t. The difference is not quite as simple as Congressman Dennis Kucinich made it out to be Sunday night in the Democratic presidential candidates debate. Just don’t send Bush another funding bill, he said. You and I would probably do it that way, Dennis. That’s why neither of us will be elected president.

But it is as simple as John Edwards said. Don’t send Bush another funding bill without attaching a deadline, timetable, something that forces him to start the withdrawal and complete it within a reasonable period. So what does Congress do? It sends Bush a bill with all the money he asked for and no timetable, because if we put a timetable in it (the cowardly Democrats say) that mean man in the White House would tell everybody we hate the troops.

Yes, he would. That mean, careless (of the troops) and vastly unpopular man in the White House is also determined to keep our soldiers in Iraq until the last dog dies or the oil runs outor until he starts it up with Iran and then the troops can be in Iraq and Iran.

Permanent bases, after all, were the whole point of Bush’s invasion. It was never WMDs, Hillary.

Last week we saw how the House Democrats managed, John Kerry-style, to vote for the blank-check bill before they voted against it. They voted to bring the bill to the floor, that is, with a rule against proposing amendments (read: a timetable). Then, they very bravely voted against the same billmost of them, but darn it, not quite enough of them to stop the minority Republicans from passing it over their very stern objections. LOL, if you can.

(Kucinich, to his credit, did not assist in this charade. He was one of the handful of Democratsseven against, seven abstainingwho were actually for ending the war.)

Then, of course, the bill went to the Senate, where the majority Democrats also arranged (with Bush) for an up-or-down vote, blank-check bill or not. Result: Blank-check wins, 80-14! And among the 14 dissenters, those two brave presidential candidates who say they want the war to end, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

But Sunday night, Edwards called them out for their lack of leadership on the issue, and he was right. Clinton and Obama finally did cast the “correct” vote, but not until the last possible minute, each apparently waiting for the other to take a stand before finally, with the vote clock running down, Obama entered the chamber and voted no, after which Clinton, rushing in, also voted no.

Until that moment, however, neither Clinton nor Obama had said a word about the bill, what was wrong with it, or that anything was wrong with it or with the Democratic leadership. They are the two leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Think they might’ve had some influence over what the Senate bill said if, that is, they’d wanted any influence?

On Sunday, Hillary said that she’d sent Bush a strong signal with her vote. Which is ever so much more effective than a weak signal.

No, Democrats must end this war. But sadly, they’d rather not have to, you know, end it before the next election.

So who “won” the debate? I thought Edwards did, if only because he needed to make a mark, and he did. Edwards is getting killed in the national polls by non-candidate Al Gore’s non-answers about whether he might run. On the other hand, Edwards is still ahead in Iowa and competitive in New Hampshire, so don’t count him out.

As for Gore, he’s great in his new role as philosopher-king. But make him a candidate, and he’ll be a pompous stuffed shirt all over againhave you heard him talking about his new book, The Assault on Reason, and lecturing us about our lack of judgment? (Al’s not gonna be president either, Dennis.)

As for who “lost,” it’s still early rounds, but Hillary made some serious mistakes that could catch up with her:

Her pro-war vote in October 2002 wasn’t wrong, because she thought Bush would give the U.N. inspectors time to figure out whether Saddam had WMDs? Oh, c’mon. As Arianna Huffington and others have written, she voted against the Levin Amendment, which would’ve forced Bush to do just that before invading. Edwards voted wrong, too. But he’s long since admitted his mistake, and is fighting to correct it. Hillary? Doesn’t make mistakes.

She says we’re safer since 9/11, just not safe enough. So Bush has done a pretty good job?

She says Edwards is wrong to say the “global war on terror” is a bumper sticker. No, he’s absolutely right that Bush has used that overblown tag to justify Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and a series of other boneheaded and/or unconstitutional moves, includingyesIraq.

She says that on universal health care, it’s not the plan that matters, it’s the broad coalition. Translation: She has no plan. Just like she and Bill never had one during the “Hillarycare” fiascoremember? They were so busy building a coalition they never even introduced a bill. But hey, like her Iraq votes, not a mistake.

Edwards celebrates his 54th birthday Sunday in Chapel Hill. Details: