For all Barack Obama’s aggressive talk about how he was finally going to force Hillary Clinton to answer for taking seemingly inconsistent positions, it was the New York senator herself who ultimately raised the issue.
After evading pointed attacks from Obama and John Edwards over Iran, Iraq, social security and taxes for much of Tuesday night’s debate at Drexel University here in Philadelphia, it was a question about, of all things, Eliot Spitzer’s failed proposal to provide illegal immigrants with ordinary, valid driver’s licenses. At first she said the proposal would fill a “vacuum” created by the lack of a national immigration plan, but when Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut called it “troublesome,” she hedged.
“I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it,” she said.
Pressed by moderator Tim Russert, Clinton bristled.
“This is where everybody plays gotcha,” she said.
"Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No,” said Clinton, adding of Spitzer, “He’s making an honest effort to do it."
Edwards and Obama, standing to her left and right respectively, leapt at the chance to take Clinton to task for what they said was a wending answer indicative of her inability to talk straight with the American people.
"If I didn’t miss this, Senator Clinton said about two different things in two minutes," said Edwards. "Americans need a president who will be straight with them."
Obama, nodding, added that he couldn’t tell if she is "for it or against it."
Before the debate even began, it was clear that a fight was in the air.
Across the street from Drexel University’s main building, which was bathed in red, white and blue floodlights, volunteers supporting Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, Obama, Edwards and Clinton all crammed next to one another screaming their heads off. In front of the dozens of Hillary volunteers, Wesley Clark stood on top of a short white stepstool in a dark suit yelling into a bullhorn.
“And she’s got a secret weapon,” said the retired general and Clinton supporter. “Hillary is a great person. She’s warm. I like her. Don’t you like her?”
“Yeah,” screamed the ranks of volunteers, cheering ecstatically behind the iron rails.
“We like Hillary,” chanted Clark. “We like Hillary. We like Hillary.”
A tall, muscular and throaty Obama volunteer named Danielle Clarke, upset about “illegal bullhorns” walked over, and repeatedly screamed “Go to hell Hillary” in time with the retired general’s chant. The volunteer got so close to him that aides had to intervene.
“She’s a nasty bitch,” Clarke said on the way back to the Obama section.
The general continued, unfazed, now leading the crowd in a chant of “Our next President.”
It was that kind of a night, with an abundance of pugilistic metaphors used by the candidates and their advisors.
On the first question of the debate, in which Obama was asked to articulate his differences with Clinton, the Illinois senator said the evening’s debate in Philadelphia was the most over-hyped bout since Rocky Balboa took on Apollo Creed.
“The amazing thing is that I am Rocky in this situation,” said Obama.
In a somewhat tentative tone, Obama pointed out how Clinton had first supported NAFTA and then opposed it. He said she first tolerated torture and now opposed it. He said she authorized the vote to pave the way to war with Iraq, and now opposed the war.
“Now, that may be politically savvy,” said Obama, “but I don’t think that it offers the clear contrast that we need. I think what we need right now is honesty with the American people about where we would take the country.
He added that leadership does not mean "changing positions whenever it’s politically convenient."
When asked to respond and to address the accusation of some of her opponents that her policies are not far from those of the Bush administration, Clinton refused to take the bait and again sought to cast herself in opposition to the Bush administration more than to Obama or any of the other Democrats on the stage.
‘I don’t think the Republicans got the message that I am like them,” she said, referencing the frequency with which her name was uttered in Republican debates. “I have been standing against the Republicans, George Bush and Dick Cheney," she said, "and I will continue to do so, and I think Democrats know that."
Edwards had no intention of letting her off the hook.