“Senator Clinton says that she can be the candidate for change but she defends a broken system that is corrupt in Washington DC,” he said. He also criticized her position of keeping a certain amount of combat troops in Iraq by saying, “To me that’s not ending the war that is a continuation of the war.”
Then, alluding to Clinton’s vote to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, he said, “She voted to give George Bush the first step to moving militarily against Iran. And they have taken it.”
Both Edwards and, to a lesser extent, Obama constantly supplied withering attacks against Clinton’s evasiveness and even electability, for much of the night.
But the issue they seemed most interested in exploiting was her vote on Iran.
Clinton did her best to respond early.
“In my view, rushing to war—we should not be doing that—but we shouldn’t be doing nothing," said Clinton. "And that means we should not let them acquire nuclear weapons and the best way to prevent that is a full court press on the diplomatic front." She said her vote was meant to apply economic sanctions on Iran as part of a vigorous diplomacy.
Later in the debate, Obama returned to Clinton’s vote, calling it “yet another rationale for what we are doing in Iraq. And I think that it is a mistake.” He said he was alone amongst the senators on the platform in having the “credibility of not having been one of the co-authors of this engagement in Iraq.”
Edwards put it more pointedly.
"What I worry about is, if Bush invades Iran six months from now, I mean, are we going to hear: ‘If only I had known then what I know now?’" which is similar to what Clinton says about her 2002 authorization vote. He asked questioned if Clinton had different messages for different audiences, a “primary mode” and “general election mode.”
Edwards then suggested she was trying to obfuscate on her position in Iraq.
“I need to rebut that,” said Clinton. "I stand for ending the war in Iraq, bringing our troops home." She then detailed her position on Iraq, which she suggested was very similar to that of Edwards. “I think we are having a semantic difference here,” she said. At another point in the debate, Hillary also responded to an attack by Rudy Giuliani, who has said she lacks any relevant experience for the job as president. She talked about the “Republicans and their constant obsession with me.”
(The most memorable reaction to the Republican criticism came from Biden, on the subject of Giuliani’s experience. “The irony is,” said Biden, “Rudy Giuliani, probably the most underqualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency, is here talking about any of the people here. Rudy Giuliani… I mean, think about it! Rudy Giuliani. There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence —a noun, a verb, and 9/11. There’s nothing else!")
Obama later suggested that the Republicans wanted to run against Clinton because they were comfortable rehashing the old fights and didn’t want to move the country forward. Edwards suggested that they wanted her to run because they thought they could beat her.
The debate went on, mostly uneventfully, for nearly an hour before the Spitzer question came up, and in the media filing room, backs suddenly straightened and fingertips clicked feverishly at keyboards as Clinton stumbled.
Afterwards, in the lobby, top campaign officials came out to spin reporters.
On the question of licenses for illegal immigrants, Mark Penn, Clinton’s senior strategist and pollster sounded not unlike his candidate.
When asked why the people on stage were confused by her answer on drivers licenses, Penn told the Observer, “Look, I think it is a complex issue. And I think that the issue that she raised about the drivers licenses was, look, she supports the governor of New York in what he’s got to do, but thinks we’ve got to have comprehensive immigration reform. At the end of the day most of the other candidates were not asked to answer the question. Only Senator Obama was asked to answer the question. And he gave almost the same answer word for word.”
But did she support Spitzer’s proposal in New York?
“She thinks he has a good idea. She thinks it’s a good idea have the different kinds of licenses to clear up the problem. She thinks it’s unfortunate he’s got to move to something like this because it is a result of the failure of immigration reform. And that only comprehensive immigration reform is the real answer.”
When pressed if a good idea was necessarily an endorsement, Penn said, “A good idea is what it is. It’s a good idea. Let’s see where that idea goes. I think she said it is a good idea given what the governor’s been handed.”
Across the room, David Axelrod, Obama’s chief consultant stood in a much smaller scrum and succinctly made the argument that many frustrated Obama supporters and donors were hoping the candidate would make on his own. “I think she showed she had a problem with being straight with the American people,” Axelrod told the Observer. “It’s a strategy and I understand the strategy. It is to be as evasive as possible and not get yourself into any potentially political positions. But ultimately that’s a problem.
“I think she created a problem for herself.”