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Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., fielded tough criticism from other contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday in an MSNBC-hosted debate. Two political journalists provide insight on the shift in tone in the primary race.
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.
From Drexel University in Philadelphia…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Edwards argued that Clinton's response demonstrated she would not be the candidate of change.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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