Opinion: Clinton stumbles a bit in Democratic debate

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A heavyweight bout that goes the distance isn’t necessarily determined by the early rounds, as tonight’s debate among the Democratic presidential aspirants vividly illustrated.

Hillary Clinton was unfazed by initial attempts to knock her off stride. But as the forum proceeded, some points actually may have been scored against her. Not enough to seriously jeopardize her front-runner’s standing in her party’s contest. But enough to keep this race interesting.

Clinton easily parried the opening efforts by Barack Obama and John Edwards to rattle her by pressing their arguments that, on the key issues of Iraq and Iran, she is not the candidate who can be counted on to dramatically redirect the Bush administration’s policies. She was aided when Obama stumbled in responding to what obviously was going to be the gathering’s first question: specifying, as part of his recent pledge to more aggressively challenge Clinton, the issues on which they differ.

‘Well, first of all, I think some of this stuff gets over-hyped,’ he said -- hardly the punch the political world had awaited. And the rest of his answer lacked precision and focus.


Edwards did better out of the gate, offering solid examples to buttress his case that Clinton is an unlikely agent of change.

Clinton basically ignored the slings and arrows, coolly and calmly touting her record and promoting various plans she laid out. She also studiously avoided attacking Obama or Edwards, which would have given them ...

greater stature than she wished to bestow.

Still, for perhaps the first time during this year’s plethora of debates, Clinton hit some rough spots. When the discussion turned to two topics -- the release of records of her activities as first lady and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants -- she gave answers that, at the least, allowed her rivals to effectively challenge her candor and consistency.

The records issue -- though hardly a burning concern for most voters -- lingers as a potential problem for Clinton, as we have previously noted. She did little to defuse the matter.

Tim Russert, one of the debate’s two questioners, noted that her husband, Bill Clinton, is an obstacle to the release of communications between the pair during his administration. The ex-president, Russert pointed out, has specifically requested the National Archives to delay any such release for several years. ‘Would you lift that ban?’ Russert asked.

‘Well, that’s not my decision to make,’ she responded. She added: ‘But certainly we’ll move as quickly as our circumstances and the processes of the National Archives permits.’

An answer guaranteed to make most eyes glaze over. But Obama effectively jumped in, noting that on one hand Clinton stresses her experience as first lady, while on the other she takes a passive approach to allowing a thorough examination of her activities during those years.

‘Part of what we have to do is invite the American people back to participate in their government again,’ Obama said. ‘Part of what we need to do is rebuild trust in our government again. And that means being open and transparent and accountable to the American people.’

As the debate was winding down, Russert asked Clinton about her apparent embrace, based on her recent comments, of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to grant driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. She responded by praising Spitzer, saying he was trying to ‘fill the vacuum left by the failure of [the Bush] administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform.’

But after Chris Dodd interjected that he opposed the proposal, Clinton felt compelled to say, ‘I just want to add, I did not say it should be done.’

Could have fooled Dodd, as he made clear. And, chances are, most who heard her were left confused, as well.

Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign was quick to spotlight the moment. Within minutes after the debate ended, Romney spokesman Kevin Madden sent out a statement saying that Clinton’s ‘troubling answer on providing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants was emblematic of someone who is both dismissive of efforts to enforce our nation’s immigration laws and entirely unwilling to offer a straight answer to a very direct question.’

Clinton’s Democratic foes won’t be taking many cues from a GOP aide, but that part about providing a straight answer to a direct question is something we expect to hear more about from them as the Iowa caucuses near. The Times’ Mark Z. Barabak and Peter Nicholas have the news story here on this website and in Wednesday’s print editions.

-- Don Frederick