Democratic Debate in Philly: Everybody vs. Hillary

This post, written by Steve Benen, originaly appeared on The Carpetbagger Report

Not since the first debate for the Democratic presidential candidates, way back in April, has there actually been some anticipation about what might happen. Last night, in Philadelphia, it was obvious that Hillary Clinton's rivals would be more aggressive towards the front-runner, but how much? Who'd benefit? Would it make a difference?

We gained some insights into the questions last night. One of the things I thought was interesting was that Barack Obama, Chris Dodd, and John Edwards all went after Clinton, to one degree or another, but they all went about it in very different ways.

Obama characterized Clinton as inconsistent, and therefore, unreliable: "Clinton in her campaign, I think, has been for NAFTA previously, now she's against it. She has taken one position on torture several months ago and then most recently has taken a different position. She voted for a war, to authorize sending troops into Iraq, and then later said this was a war for diplomacy. Now, that may be politically savvy, but I don't think that it offers the clear contrast that we need."

Edwards characterized Clinton as dishonest, and therefore, lacking integrity: "She says she'll stand up to George Bush on Iran. She just said it again. And in fact, she voted to give George Bush the first step in moving militarily on Iran, and he's taken it.... I was surprised by Senator Clinton's vote, I'll be honest about that, and then I saw an explanation of it in The New York Times for her vote, which basically said she was moving from primary mode to general election mode. I think that our responsibility as presidential candidates is to be in tell-the-truth mode all the time."

Dodd characterized Clinton as unelectable, and therefore, not worth voting for: "Whether it's fair or not fair, the fact of the matter is that my colleague from -- from New York, Senator Clinton, there are 50 percent of the American public that say they're not going to vote for her. I'm not saying that people don't know already. I don't necessarily like it, but those are the facts."

In previous debates, Clinton would just laugh off any criticism directed at her, or deflect it with a joke. Last night, that wasn't an option -- the questions dominated the event. Obama emphasized Clinton's secrecy on presidential papers from the '90s; Edwards emphasized Clinton's fundraising; everyone emphasized Clinton's vote on Kyl-Lieberman.

But in a real change of pace, Clinton actually slipped a little, and actually made a mistake.

Towards the end of the debate, Russert noted New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's (D) plan to provide driver's licenses to immigrants who enter the country illegally. Clinton had told a New Hampshire paper that the plan "makes a lot of sense." Clinton hedged, and explained why Spitzer is pursuing the policy, in an apparent defense.

Dodd questioned the policy, saying a driver's license should be a privilege. Clinton tried to backpedal: "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."

Oops. She said the plan makes a lot of sense, and defended Spitzer's efforts, but then isn't sure if the idea is any good? Clinton supports the policy, but won't endorse the policy?

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