WASHINGTON – Republican U.S. Senate candidate John Spencer said Sunday that his rival Hillary Rodham Clinton would make a "tremendous" presidential candidate if she chose to run in 2008 and criticized Americans who say they hate her.
"Hate is not a good word. I like Hillary Clinton," the former Yonkers mayor said as they met in their second and final debate of the campaign, sponsored by WABC-TV.
Spencer, a conservative who has repeatedly accused Clinton of focusing on national ambitions and shortchanging New York concerns, startled observers when he praised Clinton's experience and qualifications for higher office, including her years as first lady.
"Senator Clinton would make a tremendous candidate for president of the United States but not at the expense of New Yorkers," Spencer said. He spent much of the rest of the debate clarifying his position, saying he wasn't endorsing her and would never vote for her.
"From a Republican point of view, maybe she would be an excellent candidate because we can beat her," Spencer later told reporters.
Clinton's presumed national ambitions took center stage in the early moments of the forum, but she refused to disclose her plans for 2008, saying she had not made up her mind. Yet, she also refused to say whether she would commit to serving another six-year term in the Senate.
"I'm not looking past this election -- I can't make a decision now," Clinton said.
Clinton and Spencer tangled on a range of issues throughout the hour-long forum, including taxes, social security, North Korea's nuclear ambitions, and the conduct of the Iraq war.
Pressed to defend her 2002 vote authorizing military intervention in Iraq, Clinton said she had voted to grant President Bush the authority to send weapons inspectors back into the country -- ignoring the fact that the resolution also granted Bush authority to go to war.
"I regret the way the president used the authority," she said.
"If we knew what we know now, there never would have been a vote, there never would have been a war," she said.
Clinton, who holds a wide lead over Spencer in most polls and is expected to cruise to re-election next month, has largely ignored Spencer in recent months and targeted her criticisms at President Bush and the Republican-led Congress.
On Sunday, she took aim at Spencer's record in Yonkers, saying numerous local taxes had been raised under his watch and that the city's deficit had doubled. Spencer defended his record, saying he had cut taxes during his eight years in office.
Clinton also faced a number of highly personal questions.
Asked about her appearance on a recent Time Magazine cover that posed the question "Love Her? Hate Her?" Clinton was asked why she was such a polarizing figure to many Americans.
She largely sidestepped the question, but said she had strong opinions that may have bothered some voters.
Clinton was also asked about comments by Elizabeth Edwards, whose husband, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, is a potential Democratic rival to Clinton in the 2008 presidential contest. Elizabeth Edwards told a magazine Friday that she had a happier life and was more "joyful" than Clinton.
"I love my life," Clinton insisted, saying she was proud of her daughter, Chelsea, and loved her work.
"I respect the choices that other people, particularly other women, make in their lives and the choices that I've made have been right for me," she said.
Edwards has apologized to Clinton and said the statements attributed to her were "erroneous" and misleading. Edwards also said she has "great respect" for the senator.