Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped down from her front-runner’s pedestal and hit back at her Democratic rivals Thursday night in a feisty debate that drew out differences over immigration, foreign policy and the proper tone of an increasingly harsh campaign.
The skirmishing started right off, when Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois faintly praised Clinton as “a capable politician” who had 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 presidential debates largely above the fray, the senator from New York fired back, suggesting that Obama had failed to take a strong stand in favor of universal healthcare.
“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. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina chimed in, echoing Obama’s criticism of Clinton. “She continues to defend a system that does not work, that is broken, that is rigged and is corrupt,” Edwards said.
Clinton struck back, harder. “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,” she said.
“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 two-hour debate, held at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and sponsored by CNN, resumed a conversation that began Oct. 30, the last time the Democratic candidates shared a stage. That evening began the roughest patch of Clinton’s presidential run. Her nonspecific answers to several questions fueled rivals’ assertions that she was shifty and over-calculating.
Her problems compounded in the days that followed when Clinton’s allies complained that her rivals and the debate moderator, NBC’s Tim Russert, were unfairly piling on -- because of her gender, some said.
Asked Thursday night whether she was playing the gender card to garner support and sympathy, Clinton said no. “I’m just trying to play the winning card,” she said.
When moderator Wolf Blitzer asked whether the other candidates disagreed, only Edwards spoke up. “There’s nothing personal about this,” he said, then reiterated his assertion that Clinton was part of a broken political system. He continued over boos from the audience: “No, wait a minute. Voters have those choices . . . and they deserve to know that they have those choices, and that there are in fact differences between us.”
One inflammatory issue that carried over from the last debate involved the granting of driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. This time, however, the discussion played out differently.
Clinton stumbled the last time when asked whether she supported Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s since-withdrawn plan in New York to issue licenses to people in the country illegally. Her equivocal response spawned days of campaign back-and-forth. This time Obama seemed unable to come up with a clear answer.
“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 Jr. of Delaware agreed. Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson joined Obama on the pro-license side.
Later, Obama doubled back on another issue from the previous debate, Social Security, and delivered one of the sharpest jabs of the evening. He reiterated his support for a plan that would boost taxes on Americans making more than $97,500 a year, to ensure the longevity of Social Security. Clinton repeated her claim that that would amount to a $1-trillion tax on middle- income Americans and seniors.
“Understand that only 6% of Americans make more than $97,000 a year,” Obama said. “So 6% is not the middle class. It is the upper class. You know, this is the kind of thing that I would expect from [Republicans] Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani, where we start playing with numbers. We start playing with numbers in order to try to make a point.”
The New York senator ignored the barb. “It is absolutely the case that there are people who would find that burdensome,” said Clinton, who has called for a bipartisan panel to study the solvency issue. " . . . You have to look at this across the board, and the numbers are staggering.”
The candidates were not all asked the same questions, so direct comparisons were not always possible.
Still, differences emerged. Discussing the upheaval in Pakistan, Richardson stated that human rights sometimes must take precedence over national security in formulating the nation’s foreign policy. Clinton disagreed, along with Biden and Dodd. “Obviously, national security, keeping the country safe,” is the higher priority, Dodd said.
Obama again was less than definitive. “The concepts are not contradictory,” he said. " . . . They are complementary.”
In contrast with earlier debates, the discussion was not dominated by the war in Iraq. The first question on the subject came about 45 minutes into the session, when the candidates were asked whether the Bush administration’s “surge” policy was working. Richardson and Kucinich said it was not.
Obama, the only other candidate to get the question directly, said the added troops were “making a difference in certain neighborhoods,” but restated his opposition to the war.
“The overall strategy is failed because we have not seen any change in behavior among Iraq’s political leaders,” Obama said. “And that is the essence of what we should be trying to do in Iraq.”
On the issue of abortion, Clinton and Kucinich both said they would appoint only Supreme Court justices who would uphold Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion legal. Dodd ruled out any “litmus tests” but said he supported abortion rights and expected his nominees would respect legal precedent, an apparent reference to Roe vs. Wade.
Obama and Biden cast their stances in terms of privacy, saying they would not appoint someone who did not view privacy as an elemental right -- a belief Clinton echoed. Edwards and Richardson said they would appoint only judges who accepted Roe vs. Wade as “settled law.”
The session was split into two segments. In the first portion, the candidates fielded questions from a panel of CNN reporters. In the second, they responded to questions from the audience in the campus sports arena.
Khalil Kahn rose to ask about racial profiling, saying he had endured increased scrutiny since Sept. 11. Kucinich told the man the nation owed him an apology, then condemned his fellow candidates over what he said were shifting positions on the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, international trade pacts and the proposal to store nuclear waste beneath Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
It was a rare mention of a local issue. Democrats gave Nevada a special place on the election calendar as one of the early-voting states in hopes of introducing Western themes into the presidential campaign. But for all intents, the forum could have taken place in Manchester, N.H., Des Moines or Los Angeles -- where the candidates are scheduled to debate on Dec. 10.