In New Hampshire, Clinton Plays to the Independents

At the second Democratic presidential debate in Manchester, N.H. last night, Hillary Clinton demonstrated perfectly why she is so well-positioned in the Granite State – and why she’s lagging in Iowa.

The war in Iraq, as expected, generated most of the heat, with Hillary’s slow and nuanced retreat from her ’02 Senate vote to authorize the war clashing vividly with the blunt penance-seeking pleadings of one her main rivals, John Edwards.

That dynamic is hardly new to the Democratic race – although Mr. Edwards was far more forceful in playing it up than he was in the first debate – but it threatens Mrs. Clinton far more in activist-dominated Iowa than in New Hampshire, where next year’s primary will draw nearly as many independents as registered Democrats.

And so it was that Mrs. Clinton offered a confident, assertive, and even – at times – defiant and humorous presentation tonight that sought to turn her vulnerabilities with her party’s base into strengths with New Hampshire’s moderate and independent-minded electorate.

For instance, after Mr. Edwards repeated his assertion that the “war on terror” is a cynical Bush administration construct and rejected suggestions that domestic security has improved since 9/11 – a pitch-perfect Valentine to the left – Mrs. Clinton invoked her ties to New York and said: “I believe we are safer than we were, but we are not yet safe enough.

Shortly thereafter – and after some mischievous prodding from CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who moderated the festivities – Mr. Edwards called Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama out by name, accusing them of trying to have it both ways. In casting “no” votes on the supplemental war funds bill signed by Mr. Bush last month, Mr. Edwards strongly suggested, they were merely paying lip service to the left – since both announced their opposition at the last minute and kept the volume of their protests to a minimum.

“All of us have a responsibility to lead on this issue,” Mr. Edwards intoned, playing to one of the anti-war crowd’s strongest objection to Mrs. Clinton.

Given the chance to respond, Mrs. Clinton downplayed the differences of opinion the Democratic side, stressing the unity within the party on how disastrous the war has been and the idea that it needs to be ended.

“The differences among us are minor,” she said as she pegged the blame to President Bush, and not the the Democratic Congress of which she is a member. “The differences between us and the Republicans are major.”

(Mr. Obama, who voiced opposition to the war as an Illinois state senator in 2002, engaged Mr. Edwards directly, addressing the North Carolinian by his first name and reminding him: “you were about four-and-a-half years late on leadership on this issue” – a response that undoubtedly played better with the party base than Mrs. Clinton’s.)

Mrs. Clinton was also grilled – as she was in the first debate – on the rationale for her ’02 Senate vote. Specifically, she was asked whether she regrets not reading a National Intelligence Estimate that, many on the left contend, could have changed the outcome of the war resolution debate had its findings been more widely circulated. She said she didn’t, and then employed her increasingly familiar tactic of blurring her differences with her opponents, arguing that she hadn’t actually voted for the war, but rather to simply give Mr. Bush the authorization to do so only after an exhaustive round of weapons inspections in Iraq.

That is not an answer that will reverse her Iowa numbers. But, again, it was an answer that will play better in New Hampshire, the only state to flip its allegiances to the Democrats between the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.

In New Hampshire, Clinton Plays to the Independents