LAS VEGAS – Hillary Rodham Clinton showed she knows how to use the roughhouse tactics of the political boys club.
Two weeks after a rocky presidential debate performance where she appeared at times both defensive and evasive, the New York senator came into Thursday's Democratic forum ready to rumble.
For the first time, she directly challenged the records of her top rivals, Barack Obama and John Edwards. She even chided Edwards, her fiercest critic in this debate and others, for "throwing mud" Republican-style.
Spectators inside the debate hall appeared to echo that criticism, repeatedly booing Edwards and occasionally Obama when they criticized Clinton.
And after days of torturous contortions on whether she supported granting driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, Clinton was able to stand by and watch as Obama was tripped up on the issue this time.
"To the degree she might have been stumbling in the last debate, she regained her footing tonight," Democratic strategist Garry South said. "It was a very impressive performance by Hillary Clinton. She showed she could battle back criticism very well."
It was a night during which many of Clinton's rivals also turned in strong performances. Joe Biden demonstrated his expertise in foreign policy during an exchange over the growing crisis in Pakistan. Chris Dodd displayed his fluency on education issues, parrying a question on merit pay for teachers by saying he supported such pay for teachers in poor rural and urban districts.
But with exactly seven weeks until Iowa holds its leadoff caucuses, the dynamic between Clinton and her top two rivals loomed large. Polls show Clinton, Obama and Edwards locked in a tight three-way race in the state, and a Clinton win would be seen as her glide path to the nomination. Anything less and the nomination is up for grabs.
After months of avoiding any direct confrontation with her rivals, Clinton adopted a more aggressive tone. She took on Obama on his health care plan, arguing it would leave 15 million Americans uninsured. Obama has said he would first focus on bringing down costs.
She also noted that Edwards hadn't supported universal health care when he ran for president in 2004. "I'm glad he is now," she said.
Edwards responded by angrily denying he had "flip flopped" on important issues, as he's repeatedly accused Clinton of doing.
"Anybody who's not willing to change based on what they learn is ignorant, and everybody ought to be willing to do that," he said. "I'm saying there's a difference between that and saying the exact same two contrary things at exactly the same time."
If anything, the former first lady showed she knows how to learn from her mistakes.
After her rough outing in the last debate, Clinton lamented the "all-boys club of presidential politics" while her campaign advisers accused her male rivals of "piling on."
This time, Clinton smoothly deflected questions about whether she had played the gender card.
"It is clear, I think, from women's experiences that from time to time there may be some impediments," she said. "And it has been my goal over the course of my lifetime to be part of this great movement of progress that includes all of us, but has particularly been significant to me as a woman."
To be sure, it wasn't a perfect debate for Clinton.
Obama again cornered her on how she would keep Social Security solvent, a question she has sidestepped repeatedly. And she was forced to defend her Senate vote to take a more aggressive stand against Iran amid questions from a returning Iraq soldier and his mother who said they feared a showdown with Iran was coming next.
"Her weakest issue right now is Iran. It puts her at an enormous disadvantage in these debates," Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said.
But Clinton was able to take advantage of other moments to showcase her toughness on foreign policy.
In an exchange over the situation in Pakistan where Gen. Pervez Musharraf has declared a state of emergency, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he believed that human rights were more important than U.S. national security.
Clinton flatly disagreed. "The first obligation of the president of the United States is to protect and defend the United States of America," she said.
The strangest moment in the debate — and the most fortuitous for Clinton — came over a discussion of granting licenses to illegal immigrants, a question that has haunted Clinton since the last debate.
Until this week, she said she generally supported governors' efforts to find ways to promote public safety in their states in the absence of federal immigration reform. But Wednesday, she completely reversed herself, announcing she opposed giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
When CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer pressed the candidates on whether they supported granting licenses, Obama gave a long and convoluted answer. When Clinton was asked, she simply said "no."