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Clinton Provides an Opening in Debate

The Democratic front-runners at last night's debate in Philadelphia. (AP).

For months, Hillary Clinton successfully made the Democratic presidential race a test of who has the strength and experience to be president -- and watched her opponents struggle to keep pace. On Tuesday night, her rivals turned the tables on her, and for the first time in the campaign, Clinton could not pass the test.

Tuesday's debate in Philadelphia shifted the focus of the Democratic campaign from strength and experience to questions of trust and character. The result was the weakest performance Clinton has delivered in any debate this year and a rare instance in which her longer-term vulnerabilities were very much on display.

Whenever a front-runner stumbles, it's an important moment in a presidential campaign. That was all the more the case Tuesday because Clinton has so often dominated the debates with crisp, authoritative answers and a generally unflappable style. By the end of the two-hour engagement in Philadelphia, she looked and sounded as if she had had enough.

Whether Tuesday's debate turns out to be an aberrational moment or the beginning of something significant won't be known until later. Clinton's advisers believe the event was not nearly as bad for her politically as the initial reviews suggested. But her rivals clearly were surprised at what happened and see opportunities to continue to raise doubts among Democratic voters about whether she is clearly the best candidate for the general election.

Clinton was on the defensive from beginning to end on Tuesday, both from the moderators -- Brian Williams, the NBC anchor, and Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet The Press" -- and from her rivals. John Edwards was the most aggressive challenger to Clinton on Tuesday, but Barack Obama and Chris Dodd made telling points against her as well.

The storyline they sought to write was of an evasive front-runner who, for reasons of political calculation, caution or lack of candor, was unwilling to say what she really believes about everything from Social Security to the release of documents from her husband's administration to whether illegal immigrants should be eligible for drivers licenses.

At times she was typically strong in defending her positions, even if they run counter to the views of many Democratic voters. That was the case on Iran, where she explained her vote for a measure that her rivals said provided President Bush with a legislative rationale to go to war with the Iranians. At other times, however, she was defensive, evasive or both.

It all crystallized in the final minutes of the debate when Russert asked Clinton about a proposal by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer to give illegal immigrants drivers licenses. "What Governor Spitzer is trying to do is fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform," she said.

When Dodd said he opposed the proposal, Clinton interjected, "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..."

Dodd had heard enough and interrupted her. "No, no, no. You said, you said 'yes,'" he said.

"No, I didn't, Chris," Clinton replied with a tone of exasperation.

Edwards quickly jumped in, accusing Clinton of trying to have it both ways. "This is a real issue for the country," he said. "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 for us to be straight."

Obama said he couldn't tell whether Clinton was for or against the Spitzer proposal. "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."

This was not the first debate in which Clinton came under post-game criticism for refusing to answer questions. That's why what happened at the end of the debate was so telling. It helped tie a bow around the entire evening and allowed her opponents to leave feeling emboldened.

Clinton's campaign issued a memo Wednesday touting her as "one strong woman" and accusing her leading rivals of their own character flaws: Obama for caving to pressure to go negative; Edwards for being the leading attack dog in the Democratic race. "The sunny speeches and rosy rhetoric that once characterized their remarks has now been replaced by the kinds of jabs one typically sees from candidates desperate to gain traction in the polls," the memo said.

The Clinton team believes she can quickly clean up her muddy answer to the question of whether illegal immigrants should have drivers licenses and return the campaign to issues and attributes on which she has held the high ground. Wednesday's endorsement from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees helps change the subject, at least temporarily.

Clinton's advisers also believe Edwards, because he was so aggressive, risks turning off voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. They believe even more strongly that the spectacle of a group of men attacking the lone female candidate on the stage represents, in their words, "the politics of pile-on."

There are certainly risks for Edwards and Obama in trying to raise doubts about Clinton, but there are similar risks for Clinton if the campaign turns to a steady inquiry about her candor and trustworthiness.

The most recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll, which showed her with a 30-point lead over Obama on who Democrats favor for the nomination, underscored those vulnerabilities. Six in 10 Democrats said she was the strongest leader among the top three candidates, but just 35 percent called her the most honest and trustworthy. Polls of all Americans show that not quite half describe her as honest.

Until Tuesday night, everything was going in Clinton's direction. Her lead appeared so commanding that the story coming into Philadelphia was whether Obama could do anything to change the trajectory of the race. The story going out was Clinton -- and not the story her campaign would have wanted written.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  October 31, 2007; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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