LAS VEGAS — This time, Hillary Clinton was waiting for them when rivals John Edwards and Barack Obama went after her in a Democratic presidential debate.
The New York senator eagerly swung back at both in a raucous, two-hour debate as her two closest rivals picked up their criticisms where they left off two weeks ago in their last debate, one that shook up the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"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 both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook," Clinton said of Edwards.
Turning her focus on Obama, she accused him of wimping out on health care, a vital issue for Democrats.
"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 he would support universal health care coverage, he chose not to do that. His plan would leave 15 million Americans out."
Obama protested that his plan was comprehensive. But in fact, while Clinton, Obama and Edwards all propose similar and complex plans to overhaul American health insurance, Obama's alone would not require everyone to sign up, and experts estimate that could leave out up to 15 million Americans.
The sharp exchanges came as the campaign enters the final two months before voting starts, with Edwards and Obama sensing an opportunity since their strong challenges and a stumbling performance by Clinton two weeks earlier had caused her lead to erode and her air of inevitability to be shaken.
Some Democrats in the debate hall at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas did not like the raw-edged confrontations. Some moaned with displeasure, for example, when Obama criticized Clinton for refusing to support an increase in Social Security taxes on those making more than $97,000.
Clinton said that would be a $1 trillion tax hike on middle-class Americans. Obama said that only 6 percent of Americans earn $97,000 or more, so his proposal wouldn't hit the middle-class, but the upper class. He said she was distorting numbers to make her point: "This is the kind of thing that I would expect from Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani," Obama said, drawing groans of disapproval. That showed the sensitivity involved when Democratic candidates must challenge their party's front-runner, but not too harshly.
From the stage as well, a chorus of other candidates lamented the initial clashes between Clinton, Edwards and Obama as irrelevant.
"The American people don't give a damn about any of this stuff that's going on up here," said Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware. He said voters are concerned about their children's safety and education, their own health care, their jobs and the security of their retirement.
"When we waste time on the shrillness of the debate, the American people turn off," said Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
"It seems that John wants to start a class war. It seems that Barack wants to start a generational war," said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico. "All I want to do is give peace a chance...Let's stop this mud slinging. Let's stop this going after each other on character, on trust. Let us debate the issues that affect the American people."
Clinton deftly parried a question about whether she had "exploited gender" when her campaign complained after the last debate that all her male rivals had been "piling on" against her.
"I'm not exploiting anything at all. I'm not playing, as some people say, the gender card here in Las Vegas," Clinton said. "I'm just trying to play the winning card...People are not attacking me because I'm a woman. They're attacking me because I'm ahead."
At the same time, Clinton said, she takes pride that fathers bring their daughters to get her autograph and elderly women salute her for being the first woman to be a credible candidate for president.
Still, with the race tightening in some recent polls, Obama and Edwards pressed their case against Clinton as a poor choice for the party.
"Sen. Clinton, I think, is a capable politician," Obama said in the opening moments of the debate. "But what the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions. And that is not what we've seen out of Sen. Clinton on a host of issues, on the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants."
He added, "right now, we need a different kind of politics."
Edwards sounded a similar theme, all but accusing Clinton of being two-faced.
"Sen. Clinton says she will end the war. She also says she will continue to keep combat troops in Iraq and continue combat missions in Iraq. She says she will turn up the heat on George Bush and the Republicans. But when the crucial vote came on stopping Bush, Cheney and the neocons on Iran, she voted with Bush and Cheney," Edwards said.
Clinton, who has admitted she had a poor night at the prior debate, was ready to counterattack, joking that she wore an asbestos pantsuit to guard against being singed by the criticisms.