After some stumbles at a debate last month and a tough couple of weeks, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to reassert herself as the Democratic frontrunner in a debate in Las Vegas Thursday, accusing rivals of "throwing mud" and resorting to the "Republican playbook."
Her chief rivals, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards, continued to press Senator Clinton on what they portrayed as her contradictory answers on Iraq, Social Security, and driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. But unlike at the last forum, in Philadelphia on Oct. 30, when she looked bewildered and on the defensive, Clinton fought back with her sharpest criticism yet of her opponents' records.
She took aim at Senator Obama's healthcare plan, which she said would leave out 15 million Americans. "That's about the population of Nevada, Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire," she said, pointedly naming the four early voting states. After Mr. Edwards accused her of a series of waffles, Clinton noted that he had opposed universal healthcare in 2004 before supporting it now.
"I don't mind taking hits on my record, on issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook," Clinton said to applause.
The two-hour debate saw sharpened attacks from all sides and underscored the difficulty Clinton may have in keeping the high ground with less than two months before the Iowa caucuses, the only early voting state where she lacks a convincing lead in the polls. The four other Democratic candidates on stage Thursday were often relegated to the role of spectators. Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut complained about the "shrillness" of the debate, while others groused about feeling sidelined.
When moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware for his opinion on the squabbling among the leading candidates, Biden joked, "Don't do it, no! Don't make me speak!"
The televised forum, sponsored by CNN, is likely to go some way toward restoring Clinton's momentum after a bumpy couple of weeks. A story on National Public Radio accused her campaign of ringing up a large bill at an Iowa diner but failing to tip the waitress, whom Clinton had used in stump speeches as an emblem for the struggles of American workers. (The campaign claimed it had left a $100 tip, though the waitress maintains she never received it.) And last week Iowa operatives for Clinton were caught planting audience questions at campaign events. (Clinton said she would have opposed the tactic had she known about it.) [Editor's note: the original version misstated the location of the diner.]
Critics have also assailed comments by Clinton aides, after the Philadelphia debate, that she had been a victim of "piling on" by "the all boys' club of presidential politics."
Asked at the Las Vegas forum to clarify those remarks, she said, "I understand, very well, that people are not attacking me because I'm a woman, they're attacking me because I'm ahead."
Pressed further by moderator Campbell Brown, Clinton said, "Well, it is clear, I think, from women's experiences that from time to time, there may be some impediments.
"To be able to aim toward the highest, hardest glass ceiling," she added, "is history-making."
In a pre-emptive strike on an issue that tripped her up at the last debate, her campaign announced Wednesday that she was against driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. Her wavering answers to the question had come under fire in the last forum.
At the debate Thursday, Clinton parried renewed attacks on her vote to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group, a move that rivals had criticized as paving the way for another war.
"Sanctioning them and putting some pressure on them is an important part of getting to the diplomatic table with both carrots and sticks," she told the audience of undecided voters, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Obama landed perhaps his strongest blow after an audience question about insuring the solvency of Social Security. When Clinton said she would not back Social Security taxes on personal income beyond $97,500 because it would amount to a "$1 trillion tax increase" on "middle-class families and seniors," Obama, who supports the idea, asserted that just 6 percent of Americans earn above that current cap.
"Six percent is not the middle class," Obama said. "It is the upper class."
The line drew applause, but the next seemed to elicit an equal numbers of boos, perhaps reflecting voters' limited appetite for the campaign season's new tone. "You know, this is the kind of thing that I would expect from Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani," Obama said, "where we start playing with numbers ... in order to try to make a point."