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Democratic Contenders for President Attack Front-runner Clinton in Debate

October 31, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Democratic presidential candidates debated in Philadelphia last night in a forum that quickly took on the air of “Hillary against the field,” with just two months to go before primary voting begins.

ANNOUNCER: From Drexel University in Philadelphia…

JUDY WOODRUFF: As evidence the other Democrats consider her to be the front-runner, Hillary Clinton came under repeated attack in Philadelphia during last night’s debate, sponsored by MSNBC.

John Edwards leveled the first blow, criticizing Clinton’s recent Senate vote condemning Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: In fact, she voted to give George Bush the first step in moving militarily on Iran, and he’s taken it. Bush and 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Clinton dismissed that argument.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: Some may want a false choice between rushing to war, which is the way the Republicans sound — it’s not even a question of “whether,” it’s a question of when and what weapons to use — and doing nothing.

I prefer vigorous diplomacy, and I happen to think economic sanctions are part of vigorous diplomacy. We used them with respect to North Korea; we used them with respect to Libya. And many of us who voted for that resolution said that this is not anything other than an expression of support for using economic sanctions with respect to diplomacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But then Clinton’s three Senate colleagues stepped in. Connecticut’s Christopher Dodd.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: Good judgment and leadership at critical moments must be a part of this debate and discussion. That was a critical moment and the wrong decision was made, in my view.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Delaware’s Joe Biden.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: This was bad if nothing else happens, not another single thing. This was bad policy. The president had the ability to do everything that that amendment, that resolution called for without us talking to it. And all it has done is hurt us. Even if not another single action is taken, actions have consequences. Big nations can’t bluff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Illinois’ Barack Obama.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: This kind of resolution does not send the right signal to the region. It doesn’t send the right signal to our allies or our enemies. And as a consequence, I think over the long term it weakens our capacity to influence Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Senator Clinton wouldn’t relent.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Everybody agrees up here that President Bush has made a total mess out of the situation with Iran. What we’re trying to do is to sort our way through to try to put diplomacy, with some carrots and some sticks, into the mix and get the president to begin to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A little later, moderator Tim Russert asked Clinton about letting the public see more of her past. He raised the question if she would allow the National Archives to release now-classified documents from her time as first lady.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: You know, the archives will continue to move as rapidly as its circumstances and processes demand.

TIM RUSSERT, Host, NBC’s “Meet the Press”: But there was a letter written by President Clinton specifically asking that any communication between you and the president not be made available to the public until 2012. Would you lift that ban?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, that’s not my decision to make. And I don’t believe that any president or first lady ever has. But certainly we’ll move as quickly as our circumstances and the processes of the National Archives permits.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama jumped at the opening.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: We have just gone through one of the most secretive administrations in our history. And not releasing, I think, these records — at the same time, Hillary, as you’re making the claim that this is the basis for your experience — I think is a problem.

Part of what we have to do is invite the American people back to participate in their government again. Part of what we need to do is rebuild trust in our government again, and that means being open and transparent and accountable to the American people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Edwards argued that Clinton’s response demonstrated she would not be the candidate of change.

JOHN EDWARDS: I think that if people want the status quo, Senator Clinton’s your candidate. That’s what I believe. If they want real change, then they need somebody who tells the truth about a system that doesn’t work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Near the end of the two-hour debate, Senator Clinton tried to work her way out of another corner. She was asked whether she supported a plan by New York Governor Eliot Spitzer to allow illegal immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: We know in New York we have several million, at any one time, who are in New York illegally. They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds. It’s probability. So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Dodd jumped in first.

SEN. CHRIS DODD: But we’re dealing with a serious problem here. We need to have people come forward. The idea that we’re going to extend this privilege here of a driver’s license I think is troublesome. I think the American people are reacting to it.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it.

TIM RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, I just want to make sure what I heard. Do you, the New York senator, Hillary Clinton, support the New York governor’s plan to give illegal immigrants a driver’s license? You told the New Hampshire paper it made a lot of sense. Do you support his plan?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: You know, Tim, this is where everybody plays “gotcha.” It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problem. We have failed, and George Bush has failed. Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No.

JOHN EDWARDS: Unless I missed something, Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes just a few minutes ago, and I think this is a real issue for the country. I mean, America is looking for a president who will say the same thing, who will be consistent, who will be straight with them, because what we’ve had for seven years is double-talk, from Bush and from Cheney, and I think America deserves us to be straight.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, Host, “NBC Nightly News”: Senator Obama, why are you nodding your head?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, I was confused on Senator Clinton’s answer. I can’t tell whether she was for it or against it, and I do think that is important. One of the things that we have to do in this country is to be honest about the challenges that we face.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s when New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson urged the others to back off a bit.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), New Mexico: You know what I’m hearing here? I’m hearing this “holier than thou” attitude towards Senator Clinton. It’s bothering me because it’s pretty close to personal attacks that we don’t need.

Damage to Clinton's campaign

Mark Halperin
[Clinton's] campaign has been saying for months all front-runners get a test. Maybe last night was the test; maybe it was the beginning of a series of tests. But the dynamics for the political class of this race dramatically changed in that debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Democrats will go at it again in two weeks. Next stop: Las Vegas.

And now two views on last night's debate from Linda Douglass, contributing editor at National Journal and host of the weekly radio program "National Journal On Air," and from Mark Halperin, senior political analyst for Time magazine and author of the book "The Undecided Voter's Guide to the Next President."

Linda, Mark, thank you both for being with us.

Mark, to you first. They were piling on Hillary Clinton. Did they do damage to her?

MARK HALPERIN, Senior Political Analyst, Time Magazine: I think they did, although I think the most damage was done by Hillary Clinton herself. She had been so sure-footed in the previous debates, part of an exceptionally strong performance throughout her candidacy.

Her campaign has been saying for months all front-runners get a test. Maybe last night was the test; maybe it was the beginning of a series of tests. But the dynamics for the political class of this race dramatically changed in that debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Changed last night?

LINDA DOUGLASS, National Journal: Well, Mark makes, I think, the best point which is that she did do damage to herself. She showed a number of things about herself that are potential vulnerabilities in a general election campaign, the charge that she's not always forthcoming, the charge that some of her answers might be calculating. All the words that people tend to use against Hillary Clinton, she opened herself up for those kinds of charges.

But did it help her opponents? Not necessarily. Did Barack Obama look any stronger or tougher, as his supporters want him to do? Not necessarily. Did John Edwards appear to be more likable, more appealing? Not necessarily.

So while she might have opened up vulnerabilities about herself that in the future these Democratic opponents could take advantage of, right now it's just clear that she did a little bit of damage. It's not clear how lasting that was.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, what was different about Hillary Clinton last night? Because she's been credited in debate after debate in this primary season as being in command, being steady, coming out the winner in so many of these analyses after. What was different?

MARK HALPERIN: I think there were three things different last night, Judy. First of all, on the issue of her performance -- and debates are substantive, but they also relate to performance -- when she was challenged and affronted, rather than laughing it off or being strong, she did what she sometimes does when she is confronted.

She does not like to be challenged, particularly by people she doesn't necessarily respect. She got a little shrill, a little hot, I thought, and that was unattractive.

Number two, the past challenges have been on issues where she can say, "We're all the same. All the Democrats mostly agree. We might have had small differences in the past, but now we agree."

The two big issues last night, driver's licenses in New York and the question of the sealed records of the Clinton archives, on one, her issue position on the driver's license may not be different than the Democrats, but she answered in an equivocating way right on stage, right before everybody's eyes. And on the library issue, the archive issue, she's different than everyone.

Third, I differ a little bit with Linda. I thought Barack Obama had some very strong moments, particularly on the excerpt you showed talking about the archives. And I thought John Edwards had his strongest performance to date.

And, remember, the Democratic race is largely about Iowa, and in Iowa both Obama and Edwards are much stronger against Clinton than they are nationally.

Licenses for illegal immigrants

Linda Douglass
National Journal
This is a very big issue in states where there are many illegal immigrants, because they are driving, like it or not. They are working there, like it or not. And if they have an accident, they aren't insured.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Before I get back to Obama, Linda, what is the significance of this driver's license argument?

LINDA DOUGLASS: Well, this is all about whether or not people who are here illegally in this country should be allowed to be given driver's licenses, which certainly critics of that say could be used to get on an airplane, for example.

There are many provisions that they're going to offer in the New York plan that would prevent anybody who got a license under those circumstances for using it to get onto an airplane. But this is a very big issue in states where there are many illegal immigrants, because they are driving, like it or not. They are working there, like it or not. And if they have an accident, they aren't insured.

And there was a move in California, as you may remember, to give them driver's licenses, which was later repealed when Arnold Schwarzenegger came in as governor. But there's a sense that it's really not safe to have these millions of people out there who can drive unlicensed, unable to get insurance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But as Mark was saying, many Democrats would agree with Hillary Clinton. And she came out today, by the way, and clarified that she does for sure agree with Governor Spitzer on that.

LINDA DOUGLASS: Well, then of course, I've just given you the advocates' argument. The truth is that the majority of people in this country are wildly opposed to the idea of what Chris Dodd describes, Senator Dodd, as a privilege.

And this is going to be an issue -- the Republicans just pounced on the Democrats today, to say, "Now you want to give illegal immigrants legal papers, making them even better able to stay in this country."

Similarities among the candidates

Mark Halperin
Senator Clinton, unfairly in the eyes of her campaign I'm sure, is being singled out, even though, as we've just said, many Democrats, including some of the other candidates, agree with her on that issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You pointed out, Mark, that the candidates don't really necessarily disagree that much on many of these issues, so are we nitpicking here, to some extent, when we look for differences? What's going on?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, I think, on the driver's license issue, as I said, Senator Clinton, unfairly in the eyes of her campaign I'm sure, is being singled out, even though, as we've just said, many Democrats, including some of the other candidates, agree with her on that issue.

It's the archive issue where I think she's in big trouble, because then there's no one else in the race like that. And while the Clinton campaign is arguing, look, no other president or first lady has ever made records like this public, the Clintons are not a normal former first couple.

She's running for president. She's doing it largely on the strength of her record at first lady, some as a senator and as a public advocate, but her first lady years matter. And those documents I think are headed to becoming what is very dangerous for any politician. Those documents are becoming famous because they're secret. And most documents in a campaign or in a government where they're famous for being secret, the person who's keeping them secret faces a lot of pressure to make them public.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, you're agreeing on that?

LINDA DOUGLASS: Absolutely. First of all, this is where Barack Obama did make his best point, because it's two points. Number one, you say you're running on your record as first lady. What was that record? We want to see those documents, those records, to see what you'd actually did, what influence on government policy you had. That was his one part of his argument.

The other thing, of course, as Mark was just saying, is the whole question of secrecy. Not only was the Bush administration, in the eyes of Democrats, secretive about many things, but there were many questions about whether the Clintons themselves were forthcoming about their past in Arkansas, about things that went on in fundraising in the White House. This brings all of that back.

A shift in race dynamics

Linda Douglass
National Journal
Did the exchange ... last night help Barack Obama and John Edwards with those crucial women voters? I heard from many women today they didn't like seeing the one woman standing there in the middle of the stage being beaten up on by the men.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Linda, Mark was just saying a minute ago he thinks the dynamics of the race changed last night, that Obama helped himself, Edwards helped himself. Why don't you think they did?

LINDA DOUGLASS: Well, I think that because she has such a strong foundation of support with women and with, to a certain extent, young people, but just take a look at her foundation of support with women. Did the exchange that went on, on the stage, last night help Barack Obama and John Edwards with those crucial women voters?

I heard from many women today they didn't like seeing the one woman standing there in the middle of the stage being beaten up on by the men. Now, obviously, you say that Clinton campaign took advantage of that today. They put a video out saying they were piling on. But that's where I wonder if this really helped them rather than just hurting her.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And quickly, Mark, why do you think it did help them?

MARK HALPERIN: She's still a formidable front-runner. They didn't destroy her candidacy by any means. Linda's right. They're doing an effective job of rallying particularly women to her side.

But the only chance they have of beating her, all the campaigns have thought for months, is to make this about Clinton credibility, Clinton truthfulness, Clinton honesty, Clinton being straight.

She opened the door now on two tangible issues, one about the secrecy of the Clinton years, one about driver's licenses for illegal aliens. Both of those are hot buttons that Obama, Edwards and others can now play in Iowa where I think there is skepticism about Senator Clinton on a range of issues and where she must win or she's going to face a real challenge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And not to mention the Republicans, who come along in all this process a little bit later. Mark Halperin, Linda Douglass, thank you both.