PHILADELPHIA – After weathering a withering two-hour bout with six Democratic presidential opponents, Hillary Clinton went on offense Wednesday, scolding the other candidates for their "politics of pile-on."
The Democratic frontrunner was jostled into responding to attacks from John Edwards and Clinton's closest rival Barack Obama, saying they had abandoned their initial strategies by going negative.
"With each attack, Senators Obama and Edwards undermined the central premises of their own candidacies," reads a statement from the Clinton campaign. "The sunny speeches and rosy rhetoric that once characterized their remarks has now been replaced by the kinds of jabs one typically sees from candidates desperate to gain traction in the polls."
Shaking off the onslaught she endured during Tuesday night's debate at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Clinton woke up Wednesday to field the endorsement of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, giving her another leg up in her drive to assume a primary victory and move toward the general election.
After a fired-up introduction by AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, in which he called her a fighter, Clinton donned a pair of boxing gloves. She wore them for a few seconds, saying, "When it comes to fighting for America's families, I'll go 10 rounds with anybody."
With the gloves off, she said that together with the AFSCME, "We're going to win the election and take our country back."
Meanwhile, her drive to win the Democratic primary continues to build its momentum off what Clinton's campaign calls the "real target" — Republicans and the Bush administration. Clinton recited President Bush's name 25 times during the debate, more than all six of her rivals combined.
The constant redirection toward the administration didn't fool her opponents, however, who seized on her ambiguity during the debate on what to do about Iraq, Iran, Social Security and an array of other topics.
"Senator Clinton has clearly decided based on political calculation that her campaign strategy is to tell the American people as little as possible, avoid the difficult issues and try to blur as many differences as possible," reads a statement released Wednesday by Obama's campaign.
A Collective Assault on the Frontrunner
One of the most glaring trip-ups of the night came when Clinton seemingly praised New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who has instituted a multi-tiered system of driver's licenses so as to be able to give illegal aliens permits.
Asked about the New York plan, Clinton said she thought Spitzer was trying to "fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform."
"We know in New York we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally. They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds. It's probability," Clinton said. "So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum."
But then Chris Dodd, the Connecticut senator who frequently touts his fluency in Spanish and work in the Peace Corps in Latin America, said he disagreed with the idea of giving illegals driver's licenses.
"I'm as forthright and progressive on immigration policy as anyone here. But we're dealing with a serious problem here ... The idea that we're going to extend this privilege here of a driver's license I think is troublesome, and I think the American people are reacting to it," Dodd said.
"We need to deal with security on our borders. We need to deal with the attraction that draws people here. We need to deal fairly with those who are here. But this is a privilege. Talk about health care, I have a different opinion. That affects the public health of all of us. But a license is a privilege, and that ought not to be extended, in my view," he continued.
Clinton then said she didn't say driver's licenses should be given out, which started a scrum with the other candidates. Clinton noted that the card given to illegals won't have the same security status as other licenses because it can't be used as identification for flying on airplanes.
Dodd called the approach "a bureaucratic nightmare." Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, then questioned Clinton's honesty.
"Unless I missed something, Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes just a few minutes ago," Edwards said. "And I think this is a real issue for the country. 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 us to be straight."
Obama, the Illinois senator, then added his two cents.
"I was confused on Senator Clinton's answer. I can't tell whether she was for it or against it. And 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. Immigration is a difficult issue. But part of leadership is not just looking backwards and seeing what's popular or trying to gauge popular sentiment. It's about setting a direction for the country," the Illinois senator said, adding that Spitzer's plan "is the right idea."
Clinton called the assault a game of "gotcha." She then said that the governor's plan "makes a lot of sense," before once more turning the issue back on Bush, who took a lot of flak from many members of his party for supporting a guest worker program for illegal immigrants.
"We have failed. And George Bush has failed. Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No. But do I understand the sense of real desperation, trying to get a handle on this? Remember, in New York, we want to know who's in New York. We want people to come out of the shadows. He's making an honest effort to do it. We should have passed immigration reform," Clinton said.
The back-and-forth provided most of the few sparks of Tuesday night's debate, but was not the only time that the candidates went after the White House frontrunner. Obama started the evening with an attack on Clinton, saying she has changed her positions on the North American Free Trade Agreement, torture policies and the Iraq war.
Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, was even sharper at times, saying Clinton "defends a broken system that's corrupt in Washington, D.C." He stood by his earlier claim that she has engaged in "doubletalk."
Clinton, standing between the two men, largely shrugged off the remarks and defended her positions. She has been the focus of Republican candidates' "conversations and consternation," she said, because she is leading in the polls.
She said she has specific plans on Social Security, diplomacy and health care. "I have been standing against the Republicans, George Bush and Dick Cheney," she said, "and I will continue to do so, and I think Democrats know that."
It was the Democrats' first debate in a month, and during that time Clinton has solidified her frontrunner position, gaining in polls, taking the lead in fundraising and dominating the agenda. The Iowa caucuses are scheduled for Jan. 3, and the New Hampshire primary could be even earlier. The caucuses and primaries are to choose delegates to the party's national presidential nominating convention.
Clinton defended her Senate vote in favor of designating Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. Obama, Edwards and others have said Bush could interpret the measure as congressional approval for a military attack.
Edwards caustically challenged Clinton's claim that she stands up to the Bush administration. "So the way to do that is to vote yes on a resolution that looks like it was written literally by the neocons?" he said, referring to the now pejoratively-used term "neoconservatives," which describes advocates of military intervention in Iraq and Iran.
"In my view, rushing to war — we should not be doing that — but we shouldn't be doing nothing," Clinton said. "And that means we should not let them acquire nuclear weapons, and the best way to prevent that is a full court press on the diplomatic front."
Clinton also was the main focus during a discussion of the Iraq war. Again, Edwards leveled the toughest charges against the New York senator.
"If you believe that combat missions should be continued in Iraq" without a timetable for withdrawal, Edwards said, "then Senator Clinton is your candidate." Edwards vowed to have all combat troops out of Iraq "in my first year in office."
Clinton replied forcefully, saying "I stand for ending the war in Iraq, bringing our troops home." She added, however, that "it is going to take time," and some troops must remain to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq.
"I don't know how you pursue Al Qaeda without engaging them in combat," she said.
Edwards, drawing a link between Iraq and Iran, pressed on. "What I worry about is, if Bush invades Iran six months from now, I mean, are we going to hear: 'If only I had known then what I know now?"' He was alluding to comments Clinton has made about her 2002 vote to authorize military action against Saddam Hussein.
Some candidates expressed frustration that most of the questions were directed to Clinton, Obama and Edwards. Seventeen minutes into the debate, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich had yet to get a question and blurted out, "Is this a debate here?" Minutes later, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson threw up his hands in protest that he had not been called on either and exchanged a frustrated glance with Kucinich.
Obama, alluding to the partisanship that bedeviled Bill Clinton's presidency, told the former first lady: "Part of the reason that Republicans, I think, are obsessed with you, Hillary, is because that's a fight they're very comfortable having. It is the fight that we've been through since the '90s."
Richardson criticized his rivals for challenging Clinton so sharply, rebuking their "holier-than-thou attitude."
But Edwards and Dodd cited Clinton's relatively high unfavorability ratings.
"Fifty percent won't vote for her," Dodd said.
On Social Security, Russert asked Clinton why she told an Iowa voter, in an offstage comment overheard by an Associated Press reporter, that she was open to raising the cap on payroll taxes when the proposal is not part of her platform.
Clinton said she did not have a "private position" on Social Security. She would convene a bipartisan commission to recommend ways to strengthen the pension program, she said, and all the well-known suggestions "would be considered."
Only briefly did the candidates aim their remarks at Republicans. Delaware Sen. Joe Biden said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani "is genuinely not qualified to be president."
Giuliani's entire message is "a noun, a verb and 9/11," Biden said, but that he had "done nothing" to implement anti-terrorism recommendations by the 9/11 Commission.
Edwards, meanwhile, felt at least one jab. Kucinich, alluding to Edwards' past financial dealings, said: "When people get money from New York hedge funds and then they attack another person for getting money from Washington interest groups, you know what? They're both right."
In the debate's lightest moment, Kucinich confirmed seeing an unidentified flying object at the Washington state home of actress Shirley MacLaine. He said, with a smile, he would open a campaign office in Roswell, New Mexico, home to many alleged UFO sightings.
The debate, held at Drexel University, was aired by MSNBC. Organizers excluded former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel on grounds that he did not meet fundraising and polling thresholds.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.