WASHINGTON — Could Iran be the chink in Hillary Clinton's armor her opponents have been seeking?
As the New York senator and former first lady expands her lead for the Democratic nomination, her two closest rivals, Barack Obama and John Edwards, see an opportunity to erode her support among anti-war activists.
Their argument: that Clinton's recent positions on Iran show how she wants to be all things to all voters, leaving no one knowing where she really stands and giving President Bush leverage to start a new war in the Middle East.
Edwards has been in attack mode for days, but Obama felt constrained by his promise of a "politics of hope" rather than negativity.
On Friday, though, speaking in Iowa, Obama finally attacked Clinton by name for voting last month for Senate legislation that amounted to a shot across the bow against Iran. Anti-war groups had warned that Bush might try to turn it into justification for an air attack against Iran.
"Senator Clinton is the only Democratic candidate for president who supports this amendment," Obama said. A day earlier he mounted the same criticism in an opinion piece for a New Hampshire newspaper.
The Illinois senator also used Friday's speech to accuse Clinton of flip-flopping on diplomacy with Iran. By contrast, he said, "You will always know exactly where I stand." Clinton had called Obama naive for wanting to engage in talks with Iran's hostile president. But campaigning in New Hampshire this week, Clinton said, "I would engage in negotiations with Iran with no conditions."
Clinton and her aides say that those comments were taken out of context and that the Iran controversy is contrived by desperate campaign rivals.
On negotiating with Iran, spokesman Howard Wolfson said in a statement that Clinton "was referring to meetings between the United States government and Iran, not personal meetings with the president," and that this was an important distinction because she has always wanted the U.S. government to reopen lines of communication with Iran.
The "sense of the Senate" resolution on Iran passed, 76-22, with support of more than half the Senate's Democrats. Clinton said she supported it "because I think sanctions and pressure applied to Iran is better than going to war with Iran." She also said, "There was nothing in that resolution that gave President Bush or anyone any authority to go to war." Many Democrats, including Obama's close supporter, liberal Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., agreed.
The resolution calls for designating Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization - something Obama also has supported. But the resolution's language connects Iran and the Iraq war in a way that critics say Bush could use to try to goad Iran or build a case for an attack.
Two other Democrats running for president, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, voted no.
Obama, campaigning that day, missed the vote.
Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said that compromises Obama's credibility.
"If Senator Obama really believed that this measure gave the president a blank check for war he should have been there, speaking out and fighting against it," Singer said.
Still, anti-war activists remember that Clinton, along with Edwards, voted in 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq and worry that Bush is intent on attacking Iran before his term ends.
Tom Andrews, national director of the Win Without War Coalition, said Clinton's Iran vote seems a general-election strategy to show strength on foreign policy, while her subsequent vote to require a president to seek congressional approval for an Iran attack was aimed at easing primary voters.
"It's the worst of triangulation," he said, adding he was also disappointed in Obama's missed vote.