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Clinton's Debate Showing a Warning to Opponents

Clinton won in Las Vegas by turning the tables on her opponents. (AP).

LAS VEGAS -- Thursday's debate here did not put the Democratic presidential race exactly back to where it was before Hillary Clinton's weak performance in Philadelphia last month. But it will blunt talk that she is on a downward slide and shift the focus to whether Barack Obama or perhaps John Edwards have the strategy and campaign skills to stop her.

Clinton won the battle of Las Vegas by aggressively turning the tables on her rivals, challenging them where they are vulnerable and forcing them to answer questions they weren't ready to answer. She once again demonstrated her skill as a debater -- and Obama showed that he excels in other forums more than debates.

If Obama ever looks back at the video of the debate, he will see at least three moments he will regret, moments where he either faltered or missed an opportunity to counter the front-runner's criticisms. Edwards may think of this as the debate where he was able to do little more than restate old charges against Clinton, while struggling to stay in the center of the discussion as he had done in Philadelphia.

Clinton's performance was a warning to her opponents. As Steve Elmendorf, who ran Richard Gephardt's campaign in 2004 and has endorsed Clinton, put it Friday morning, "She sent a very strong signal to the other candidates that there are no free shots here. She is ahead and if they attack her she'll hit back. Everybody has vulnerabilities."

Obama's most significant mistake came on the issue where he should have been most prepared: whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to have driver's licenses. Obama had spent two weeks criticizing Clinton for her inability to answer that question succinctly in Philadelphia -- or since. The day before the debate, one of his spokesman put out a statement ridiculing Clinton on the topic.

When the moment arrived in Las Vegas for Obama to answer the question, his response was halting and confused -- every bit as much of a stumble as when Clinton faltered over the same question in Philadelphia.

Obama first acknowledged that he had supported the idea as a member of the Illinois state senate. Then, he said, "I am not proposing that's what we do." Then he said the driver's license issue is a distraction from the real problem of illegal immigration and started off trying to turn the question in another direction.

Pressed, finally, by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer to answer the question, Obama said yes, he supports giving driver's licenses to undocumented workers. When Clinton got the opportunity to respond, after clearly enjoying watching Obama on the griddle, she gave a one-word answer: "No."

On Social Security, Clinton seized an opening from Obama to accuse him of favoring a tax increase on the middle class and he was not as deft as he might have been in countering that attack.

This exchange involved whether to increase the amount of earnings subject to Social Security payroll taxes. Obama has been critical of Clinton for refusing to be more specific about how to alleviate the long-term financial problems of the government retirement system. In the debate, he once again said he is inclined to favor raising the payroll tax cap in some way above the current $97,500 limit.

What he did not say in the debate, but has on a number of occasions on the campaign trail, is that one approach he is open to would be to create a donut hole by exempting income between $97,500 and perhaps $200,000 (as Edwards has recommended). By failing to do that, he gave Clinton the opportunity to cast herself as the protector of middle-class workers.

"I do not want to fix the problems of Social Security on the backs of middle-class families and seniors," she said. "If you lift the cap completely, that is a $1 trillion tax increase. I don't think we need to do that."

Obama said those making above $97,500 are not middle class, but Clinton countered that she represents firefighters and school supervisors who would be forced to pay more Social Security taxes under Obama's proposal.

The irony is that she privately told an Iowa voter (who has since endorsed Obama) that she might be open to raising the cap on payroll taxes and there are other indications that she is receptive to Edwards's idea of creating a donut hole.

Early in the debate, Clinton and Obama got into an argument about health care. Obama started the exchange when he said, "What the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions, and that is not what we've seen out of Senator Clinton on a host of issues."

Clinton's response showed that Las Vegas would not be a repeat of Philadelphia, where she attempted to deflect rather than counter her rivals' criticisms. "I hear what Senator Obama is saying, and he talks a lot about stepping up and taking responsibility and taking strong positions," she said. "But when it came time to step up and decide whether or not he would support universal health care coverage, he chose not to do that. His plan would leave 15 million Americans out."

Obama tried to shrug off the criticism, but the fact that his health care plan lacks a mandate requiring all Americans to purchase health insurance creates a potential gap in coverage that he cannot wish away. His plan has merit, but unlike those offered by Clinton, Edwards and others, it likely would fall short of achieving universal coverage without some modifications.

Clinton was not flawless on Thursday. Her answer on trade left questions her opponents will attempt to exploit -- Edwards's campaign jumped quickly on this Friday morning -- and she still has not made clear exactly what she thinks about the payroll tax. But in general, Thursday's debate was far better for Clinton than for her rivals. After Philadelphia the question was how she would respond. That's the question now facing Obama and Edwards.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  November 16, 2007; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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