CHELMSFORD, Mass. — More than a hundred people packed the Chelmsford police station May 23 to hear five candidates seeking to replace Rep. Martin Meehan (D-5th C.D.). Meehan is stepping down from Congress to become chancellor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell effective July 1.

The theme of this first forum of the race was the effects of the Iraq war on the economy, education and health care. The candidates, all Democrats, also discussed veterans’ services and issues relating to active-duty members of armed forces and their families.

Last year, voters in 39 legislative districts in urban, suburban and rural areas, representing one-quarter of the state, voted in favor of “withdrawing immediately” from Iraq.

The only Republican candidate, James Ogonowski, was invited to the forum but did not attend. Ogonowski, an active-duty Air Force officer, said he would discuss the Iraq war at a press conference in June, when he retires.

State Rep. James Eldridge said ending the war was his number one priority and that he has been against the war in Iraq since before it started. He said he supported a plan like the one presented by Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), which calls for withdrawing all the troops within one year, starting in three months.

Eldridge, a former legal services lawyer who has a 100 percent AFL-CIO voting record in the state Legislature, has also set himself apart from the other candidates by being the only one who supports a universal single-payer health care plan.

Niki Tsongas, widow of former Sen. Paul Tsongas, also said she supported the McGovern plan. She came out against the war in the last few weeks.

Eileen Donoghue, a City Council member from the neighboring city of Lowell, also called ending the war a priority, saying she did not want to “jeopardize any more lives in Iraq.” One of the soldiers who recently went missing in action, Alex Jiménez, is from the nearby city of Lawrence.

Donoghue criticized any Iraq war-funding bill in Congress that lacks a timeline for withdrawal. She said the U.S. should no longer “referee this civil war in Iraq.”

State Rep. Barry Finegold called for ending the war, but only after the U.S. divides Iraq into three areas, one for Sunnis, one for Shia and one for the Kurds. While not supporting a timeline, he said he wanted to see U.S. soldiers home by the end of 2008.

The only candidate who spoke against ending the Iraq war, state Rep. James Miceli, claimed it is a war against terrorism. He called any talk of producing a timeline “lunacy.” Miceli also expressed “concern” about Iran, leading a number of participants to suggest he might be willing to approve an attack on that country by the Bush administration.

All the candidates were critical of the level of veterans’ services provided by the Bush administration and vowed to increase them. Eldridge, Tsongas and Donoghue said they would introduce a new GI Bill of Rights, with Donoghue saying it would be her first priority.

The forum was sponsored by Citizens for Civic Courage, a newly organized group of Gold Star families and veterans.

Gov. Deval Patrick (D) has scheduled a primary election for Sept. 4 and the general election for Oct. 16 to replace Meehan.