LAS VEGAS – Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped down from her front-runner’s pedestal and swiped back at her Democratic rivals Thursday night in a feisty presidential debate that drew out differences over immigration, foreign policy and the proper tone of an increasingly harsh campaign.
The skirmishing started when Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois faintly praised Clinton as “a capable politician” who has run a “terrific campaign.”
“But what the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions,” Obama went on. “And that is not what we’ve seen out of Sen. Clinton on a host of issues.”
After spending the first seven Democratic debates largely above the fray, the senator from New York fired back by suggesting that Obama had failed to take a strong stand in favor of universal health care.
“His plan would leave 15 million Americans out,” Clinton said, then ticked off several early voting states. “That’s about the population of Nevada, Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire.”
Obama disputed the assertion, then – after a brief back-and-forth – former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina chimed in to echo his criticism of Clinton. “She continues to defend a system that does not work, that is broken, that is rigged and corrupt,” Edwards said.
Clinton struck back, harder. “I’ve just been personally attacked,” she said. “… I don’t mind taking hits on my record on issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it’s both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook.
“For him to be throwing this mud and making these charges I think really detracts from what we’re trying to do here tonight,” Clinton said to cheers from the rowdy audience. “We need to put forth a positive agenda for America.”
Much of the debate, held at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and sponsored by CNN, played like a resumption of the conversation that began Oct. 30, the last time the Democratic candidates shared a stage.
Clinton entered having endured the roughest patch of her presidential run, which began after the last debate. Her answers to several questions that night fueled rivals’ assertions that Clinton is over-calculating, and her problems compounded when allies complained that Clinton’s rivals and the debate moderator, NBC’s Tim Russert, were unfairly piling on because of her gender, some said.
Asked if she was playing the gender card to garner support and sympathy, Clinton said no. Asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer if they disagreed, none of her opponents spoke up save for Edwards, who did not answer directly but said there were legitimate differences to be explored.
“There’s nothing personal about this,” Edwards said. “Voters are entitled to know what those differences are, without it being personal.”
He reiterated his assertion that Clinton is part of a broken political system, then spoke over boos to complete his sentence. “No, wait a minute,” he said. “Voters have those choices and they deserve to know that they have those choices and that there are in fact differences between us.”
One issue that carried over involved the granting of driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. This time, however, the discussion played out in reverse order.
Clinton stumbled the last time when asked whether she supported New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer’s since-abandoned plan to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants. Her imprecise response spawned days of campaign back-and-forth, particularly from Obama’s campaign. This time Obama seemed unable to come up with a clear answer when asked whether he would support such a policy.
“When I was a state senator in Illinois, I voted to require that illegal aliens get trained, get a license, get insurance to protect public safety,” Obama said. “But I have to make sure that people understand. The problem we have here is not driver’s licenses. Undocumented workers do not come here to drive.”
When asked directly, “Do you support or oppose driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants?” Obama said: “I am not proposing that that’s what we do.” Later, he said he would support granting licenses.
Clinton’s answer was a single word: “No.” Sens. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph R. Biden of Delaware agreed. Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson joined Obama on the pro-license side.
Obama later doubled back on another issue from the previous debate, Social Security, and delivered one of the sharpest jabs. He reiterated his support for a plan that would boost taxes on Americans making more than $97,500 a year. Clinton repeated her claim that that would amount to a $1 trillion tax on middle-income Americans and seniors.