Clinton returns fire as discourse intensifies

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) Thursday night in Las Vegas challenged her critics head-on in a debate that continued the chippy tone of a growingly contentious Democratic presidential nominating contest.

Accusing her top opponent, Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Debate gives Democrats a chance to focus on unaddressed issues of concern to black voters Is Joe Biden finished? MORE (D-Ill.), of not supplying direct answers in the same vein she has been criticized in recent weeks, Clinton tried a new tack in a contest that finds the frontrunner the butt of her rivals' attacks and desiring a rebound from a difficult two-week stretch on the campaign trail.

The debate began with a six-minute back-and-forth on illegal immigration and health care between Clinton and Obama, with both candidates asking for chances to respond to personal salvos launched at their campaigns.

Initially accusing Clinton of not recognizing the social security problem and taking a prolonged amount of time to take a firm stand on drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, Obama plainly stated that Clinton has not provided “straight answers to tough questions.”

The former first lady quickly fired back, moving the debate to universal healthcare.

“He talks a lot about stepping up and taking responsibility and taking strong positions,” Clinton said, “But when it came time to step up and decide whether or not to support universal healthcare coverage, he chose not to do that.” Clinton stressed that Obama’s plan would not mandate coverage for all Americans.

Clinton called healthcare “a big difference” between her and Obama, but the Illinois senator said the difference is not so great and that health care should be made affordable so that all people have the option.

Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) soon joined the sniping, rehashing an attack on Clinton’s recent vote that her opponents say lays the foundation for military action against Iran. Clinton was the only Democratic senator running for president to support the measure.

“Sen. Clinton says she will end the war; she also says she would continue using combat troops in Iraq and continue combat missions in Iraq,” Edwards said. “When the crucial vote came on stopping Bush and Cheney and the neo-cons on Iran, she voted with Bush and Cheney.”

Clinton defended the vote and disputed that it provides the Bush administration with the impetus for war with Iran. She then chastised Edwards for his offensive.

“I don’t mind taking hits on my record, on issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it’s accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook,” she said.

Obama echoed Clinton later in the debate by accusing her of fudging statistics in the same manner as the Republican presidential frontrunners, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), unable to gain any traction in the polls to this point, said the “shrill” nature of the debate will only hurt the Democratic Party, while New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson took aim at the three frontrunners all at once for their tactics.

“It seems that John wants to start a class war, it seems that Barack wants to start a generational war, it seems that Sen. Clinton ... doesn’t end the [Iraq] war,” Richardson said. “All I want to do is give peace a chance.”

Later in the debate, Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.) sarcastically apologized for a direct response to a question on Pakistan, egging on his opponents: “I know you’re not supposed to answer a question.”

But with a premium on direct answers in the aftermath of Clinton’s alleged parsing in the previous debate, the whole field did carve out some clear issue positions and differences.

All of the candidates except Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) agreed to support the party’s nominee, whoever it might be. Kucinich, stepping up his role as a long-shot antagonist in the race, said the nominee must “oppose war as an instrument of policy” to gain his support.

On the issue of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, Obama took some prodding before saying he supports them. Richardson agreed, while Clinton, Dodd and Edwards all said they oppose the idea.

While almost all of the candidates said a Supreme Court nominee should support Roe v. Wade, Dodd said a “litmus test” would set a dangerous precedent.

Biden said his first Supreme Court appointment would be a woman and promised to have Republicans in his administration.

Richardson said human rights would take priority to national security in his administration. Asked whether they agreed, Obama demurred and said the goals are not contradictory, while Clinton and Dodd categorically said national security is job No. 1 for a president.

Both Clinton and Obama admitted mistakes on different issues they have been tied to. Clinton said the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was orchestrated by her husband’s administration, was a mistake in that it did not accomplish its goals. Obama, who missed the Iran vote, cited the demands of campaigning but acknowledged it was a miscue to not cast his vote.