Hillary Clinton swung back at her two main rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination last night, rebuking them for changing their positions on health care and portraying herself as the most experienced and qualified candidate for her party's nomination.
The New York senator's pointed criticisms of her opponents -- unusual for a front-runner seeking to remain above the fray -- came after two shaky weeks for her campaign. She had been forced to defend herself against charges that she has changed positions on key issues, that she had played the gender card and that her staff planted friendly questions at campaign events.
But Clinton last night appeared to regain her footing, responding to attacks from her foes with a blend of humor and counter-punches, and firmly defending her positions on Iran, immigration and Pakistan. Her recovery in this 10th Democratic debate since April came at a critical juncture in the race, less than two months before the first primary ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire.
``I don't mind taking hits on my record, on issues,'' Clinton said at the Cox Pavilion at the University of Nevada las Vegas, which hosted Nevada's first-ever presidential debate, featuring seven candidates and televised nationally on CNN. But ``when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook.' Clinton then took issue with opponents John Edwards and Barack Obama, who were most critical of her in the last Democratic debate and are her closest challengers in the early primary states. Edwards, Clinton said, did not support universal health care when he ran for president in 2004 but does now, and Obama, she said, would not cover all Americans in his health care plan, even though he could have proposed policies to do so.
Edwards and Obama lobbed a couple of criticisms at Clinton -- ``was that a planted question?'' former North Carolina Senator Edwards asked the debate host, Wolf Blitzer, referring to complaints that the Clinton campaign set up people to ask sympathetic questions at public events. But Obama and Edwards both were booed when they criticized her personally, and after some sharp personal exchanges in the early minutes, the debate shifted back into discussions of key issues.
Obama, an Illinois senator, defended his health care proposal. ``I don't think that the problem with the American people is that they are not being forced to get health care. The problem is they can't afford it,'' Obama said.
Obama hit back hard, however, when Clinton accused him of backing a $1 trillion tax hike to buttress Social Security. Obama wants to raise the $97,500 cap on the amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax. Since all wage-earners pay the same rate on the first $97,500, higher-income earners end up paying at a lower overall rate than poorer workers.
Clinton declined last night to say whether she would adjust the cap, repeating earlier comments that she wanted a commitment to ``fiscal responsibility'' before considering such a move.
``If you lift the cap completely, that is a one trillion dollar tax increase,'' Clinton said, adding that she did not want to strengthen the Social Security trust find on ``the backs of the middle class and seniors.''
Obama -- who has not proposed lifting the cap entirely -- said that only six percent of wage-earners earn more than $97,500 a year. ``This is the kind of thing I expect from Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani, when we start playing with numbers to make a point,'' Obama said, referring to two leading GOP candidates for president.
``This is the top six percent, and that is not middle class,'' Obama said during the exchange, which was part of a question-and-answer phase involving local Nevada voters.
Nevada moved up its caucuses to Jan. 19, prodded mainly by Democrats who wanted to bring more attention to a Western state with strong Hispanics and labor union populations. But candidates have been spending little time in Nevada, focusing their efforts on early nominating states New Hampshire and Iowa.
The seven Democratic contenders largely agreed on key issues such as abortion and education. Clinton, Obama, Edwards and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd all said they would appoint judges who believed in the right to privacy, which abortion rights advocates see as the basis for the right to an abortion. On education, the candidates were heavily critical of the No Child Left Behind law several of them voted for, with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson winning cheers from the audience when he said he would ``junk'' the law that requires large-scale testing of students and punishments for schools that do not ``perform.''
But on matters including immigration and dealing with Pakistan, the candidates clashed. Delaware Senator Joe Biden, who spoke to Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf soon after Musharraf imposed a state of emergency and other repressive measures, said the United States needs to help Pakistan with economic aid, not military aid, to buttress democratic forces there.
Asked bluntly if she would choose protecting human rights over US national security, Clinton said, no. But she said the United States should pressure Musharraf to move ahead with democratic elections and lift the state of emergency.
Obama insisted the choice between human rights abroad and security at home was a false one.
``The concepts are not contradictory...they are complementary,'' Obama said. If the United States allows repression in Pakistan to continue, anti-American sentiment there will grow.
On immigration, Clinton said she would not support giving drivers licenses to undocumented aliens -- a position she took recently after complaints that she was hedging on the issue. Obama, who had criticized Clinton for being unclear in the previous debate on the issue, appeared to hesitate himself when first asked about it. Later, he said ``yes' when asked if undocumented immigrants should get licenses.
``Undocumented workers are not coming here to drive,'' but to get jobs, Obama said.
On Iran, Clinton's foes repeated their criticism of her vote for a resolution declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a ``terrorist'' organization, a vote Edwards said could encourage the Bush administration to go to war in Iran. Clinton insisted she opposed a ``rush to war,'' but said the United States need to put pressure on Iran with the resolution.
Proudly noting she was the only woman in the race, Clinton also rejected the notion that she was using her gender as an issue. After she was heavily criticized in the last debate, Clinton referred to the ``boy's club'' of presidential politics.
``I am not exploiting anything at all. I am not playing, as some people say, the gender card,'' Clinton said. ``Here in Las Vegas, I'm just trying to play the winning card."