LAS VEGAS—Tonight, Hillary Clinton hit back.
After weeks of withering attacks by her Democratic rivals, political missteps by her own campaign and a seeming inability to give a straight answer on the hot-button issue of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, Ms. Clinton took the platform at a debate at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, pointed to her charcoal jacket, and said “This pantsuit—it’s asbestos,” suggesting she was ready to withstand any onslaughts.
And they started right away.
Barack Obama explained his problem with Ms. Clinton by saying, “what the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions, and that is not what we have seen out of Senator Clinton on a host of issues—on the issues of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.”
Ms. Clinton, who has largely refused to take the bait from her Democratic rivals, choosing instead to contrast herself with the Bush Administration, effectively engaged.
“Well, I hear what Senator Obama is saying, and he talks a lot about stepping up and taking responsibility and taking strong positions,” she said. “But when it came time to step up and decide whether or not he would support universal health care, he chose not to do that.”
Mr. Obama defended himself, saying, “The truth is that I do provide for universal health care.”
He argued that his emphasis on cutting costs for health care insurance paved the way for universal coverage and as a result, a mandate was not necessary. (Many advocates of universal health care were surprised by the lack of a mandate for universal coverage in Mr. Obama’s plan, which distinguished it from Ms. Clinton’s and John Edwards’ proposals.)
Ms. Clinton, who prides herself on her intricate knowledge of health care policy, refused to let Mr. Obama’s point stand.
“I can’t let that go unanswered,” she said, adding “Senator Obama’s health care plan does not cover everyone” and “he does not mandate the kind of coverage that I do.”
She concluded, “There is a big difference between Senator Obama and me.”
(The Clinton campaign, clearly prepared for their candidate to raise the health care issue, quickly flooded reporters’ inboxes with statements arguing that Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards had failed to support universal health care.)
Wolf Blitzer, the debate’s moderator, then invited Mr. Edwards into the spat, and the most dependable firebrand of the Democrats’ recent debates did not disappoint.
“She says she will turn up the heat on George Bush,” he said of Ms. Clinton, but she “voted with Bush and Cheney” on a vote to label Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization.
Ms. Clinton, seeming to relish her position in the crosshairs, smiled and said ironically, “I respect all my colleagues on this stage.”
“I don’t mind taking hits on my record on issues,” she said, “but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it’s both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook.”
Speaking specifically of Mr. Edwards, 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. We need to put forth a positive agenda.”
The crowd applauded.
After the initial volley, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards seemed to lay off. The tone softened, due in part to another solid and humorous debate performance by Joe Biden. (“I know you’re not supposed to answer questions, based on what I’ve heard,” he said after giving an answer about Pakistan.)
Then Blitzer raised aquestion that originally tripped Ms. Clinton up two weeks ago at a debate in Philadelphia and has since emerged as a Republican wedge issue, asking whether she supported driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
Mr. Blitzer solicited answers down the line. Mr. Edwards went first, in a wending answer that ultimately said he would not support drivers licenses. Mr. Obama, who has highlighted Ms. Clinton’s obtrusiveness on the issue as indicative of the reasons she should not be president, said he wasn’t proposing such a plan, then hedged, then was eventually pushed into a “yes.”
When it was Hillary Clinton’s turn, she simply said “no.”
(The Clinton campaign provided the groundwork for that simple answer yesterday, when, after a two-week long evolution on the issue that she originally called a “good idea”—on the very day that Governor Eliot Spitzer abandoned the plan—she came out against it.)
After the Philadelphia debate two weeks ago, Ms. Clinton’s rivals boasted that that they had knocked her off her pedestal and shattered the girding aura of inevitability in which she seemed encased. Tonight, the Obama and Edwards campaigns hoped for more of the same. Instead, Ms. Clinton hit back and seemed to recover.
When Ms. Clinton was asked if she had exploited her gender in the last debate, by referring to the piling on of an “all-boys club,” Ms. Clinton again flashed a smile and launched into her stump speech.
“I’m not exploiting anything at all,” she said. “I am not exploiting the gender card here in Las Vegas; I am trying to play the winning card.”
That language echoed a memo sent out hours before the debate by Ms. Clinton’s Chief Pollster Mark Penn, who wrote that she was the field’s sole owner of “the leadership card.”
“While opponents are strategizing and re-launching their campaigns with aggressive personal attacks on Sen. Clinton, one truth remains—running for president is not a qualification for president. The voters are looking for someone who has the strength and experience to lead, and little has changed in the last few weeks outside of the massive media coverage of the attacks.”
The media will likely go with a different storyline for November 16.