A day after Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate, the most contentious of the seven staged thus far, Hillary Rodham Clinton cannot be blamed if she still feels like a human punching bag.
The New York senator's rivals served up sharp blows on issues ranging from Iran, immigration, and sealed personal records to larger questions of candor and electability. Time will tell if the two-hour slugfest in Philadelphia takes a toll on her support among Democratic voters. Heading into the debate, she had formidable leads in national polls and in most states with early nomination contests.
But for now, two conclusions are clear: First, the debate gave Senator Clinton's Republican rivals plenty of new fodder for the general election, should she win the Democratic nomination. Already, GOP candidates are jumping all over her labored discussion of whether illegal immigrants should be granted driver's licenses. (After laying out a rationale for supporting such a policy, she eventually said no.)
Second, she demonstrated why it's so difficult to win the presidency as a sitting senator, a feat accomplished only twice in US history. The life of the senator is full of compromises, tactical moves, and nuanced votes – in short, positions that can take time to explain and certainly do not fit on a bumper sticker.
In the 2008 campaign cycle, perhaps no area is more ripe for the appearance of senatorial maneuvering than foreign policy. Lately, the focus has been Iran – and Exhibit A is Clinton's mid-October vote to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization. The vote launched a wave of attacks from fellow Democrats, who call it an echo of her 2002 vote to authorize US military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. None of the other Democratic senators running for president supported the measure, arguing that it helps President Bush build a case for war with Iran.
In her first response at the debate, Clinton portrayed herself as an opponent of Mr. Bush's policies on Iran. "The Republicans are waving their sabers and talking about going after Iran," she said. "I want to prevent a rush to war."
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the sharpest critic of Clinton all evening, jumped on that statement.
"She says she'll stand up to President Bush on Iran; she just said it again," Mr. Edwards said. "And in fact, she voted to give George Bush the first step in moving militarily on Iran, and he's taken it. Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney have taken it. They've now declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization and a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction. I think we have to stand up to this president."
At the time of the vote, Clinton said she supported the resolution as a boost to diplomatic efforts to deny Iran access to nuclear materials. But analysts also saw her position – like her vote on Iraq five years ago – as a move to boost her image as tough on defense. As a woman and as a member of a party that has fought for decades to restore its image on defense, she may feel it is particularly important to carve out a centrist position, analysts say.
But the move also appeared to signal that she was feeling comfortable with her position atop national polls for the Democratic nomination and was already looking ahead to the general election, another point Edwards hammered her on.
Lost in the shuffle is a key point about the Iran resolution. Unlike the 2002 Iraq resolution, which explicitly authorized the president to "use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate," the nonbinding Iran measure contained no such language. In fact, the bill had originally stated that the US should "combat, contain, and roll back" Iranian involvement in Iraq, but that language was dropped in the final version.
In a charged political debate, however, that does not come up. Instead, Edwards added fuel to the common view of Democratic voters that Bush will take any opening he can find to launch a war with Iran. "What I worry about is if Bush invades Iran six months from now, I mean, are we going to hear, 'If I only had known then what I know now?' " he said, referring to Clinton's justification for her 2002 vote on the Iraq war. "Well, we know enough now to know we have to stand up to this president."
On the Republican side, the escalating tensions with Iran present an opportunity to talk tough without the messy reality that Iraq represents. Among the top four Republican candidates, only Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona has been holding back lately in his rhetoric about possible military action against Iran.
"I can say that we cannot allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon," Senator McCain said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "But I do believe that to start talking about specifics, a bombardment or something like that, I think would be a terrible mistake."
The other top GOP candidates, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, have all stated a willingness to take action against Iran to prevent it from attaining nuclear weapons. In the last Republican debate, Oct. 22, Mr. Giuliani asserted that a nuclear-armed Iran would be more dangerous than going to war with Iran, though he also suggested that his tough stance was partly tactical. If the US is clear that "we would take action to stop them from becoming nuclear," he said, then he thinks "sanctions … would work much more effectively."
Last Thursday, the Bush administration announced economic sanctions against the elite Quds division of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Among the eight Republican presidential candidates, only Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas has carved out a distinctly different stance on foreign policy. He favors a position that he calls "noninterventionism." Mr. Paul has predicted that the United States will launch a military attack against Iran before the end of the Bush presidency.
Bush has kept the rhetorical heat on Iran lately, warning that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons could result in World War III.