WASHINGTON — New York Sen. Hillary Clinton mixed it up with her chief Democratic rivals in a presidential candidates' debate Thursday night in Las Vegas, and their sharp rhetoric highlighted news from the campaign trail this week.
"What the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions. And that is not what you've seen out of Senator Clinton," Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said early on.
"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, rebuking former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards at one point.
The rhetoric got so hot that the audience groaned at times. Other Democratic candidates bemoaned it too.
"The American people don't give a darn about any of this stuff that's going on up here," Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware said. He said voters were 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," Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut said.
In fact, the two-hour debate touched on many serious issues, including health care, immigration, Iran, Pakistan and energy independence. But the news media's central focus was on Clinton taking fire and giving it back. She got off the best line of the night when she was asked whether she'd been exploiting gender politics.
"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."
QUOTE OF THE WEEK?
Former Reagan White House Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein, on Republican presidential front-runner Rudy Giuliani, known for his tempestuous personality:
"You either love him or he hates you."
THOMPSON WINS VALUABLE NOD
The National Right to Life Committee, the largest anti-abortion group in the country, with 3,000 chapters, endorsed former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson for president Tuesday. "Our endorsement is a testament to Senator Thompson's long-standing pro-life record, his commitment to protecting unborn children and our belief in his ability to win," said Wanda Franz, the president of the committee. The group said Thompson was the candidate most likely to beat abortion-rights supporter Giuliani for the Republican presidential nomination.
HILLARY TAKES FIRM STAND ON LICENSES — FINALLY
Clinton declared firmly on Wednesday that she opposes driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. That might seem unremarkable, except that she'd waffled on the question for two weeks. At the Democrats' debate Oct. 30, she said that while New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to let illegal immigrants get driver's licenses "made a lot of sense," she didn't exactly endorse it. Her rivals said she was trying to have it both ways.
The next day, her campaign issued another ambiguous statement on the question, and for two weeks she was criticized for not taking a stand. On Wednesday, Spitzer abandoned his plan, then Clinton came out flatly against it. Rivals pounced: In the words of Dodd's campaign spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan: "It's flip-flopping cubed. She was for it before she was against it, before she was for it, before she was against it."
GIULIANI AIRS FIRST TV AD
And he doesn't even mention 9-11, his signature event. Instead, the ad, unveiled Thursday in New Hampshire, touts his record as New York's mayor: "They used to call it unmanageable, ungovernable. . . . We turned it into the safest large city in America. The welfare-to-work capital of America." Ending: "So I believe I've been tested in a way in which the American people can look to me. They are not going to find perfection. But they're going to find someone who has dealt with crisis almost on a regular basis, and has had results."
POLL SHOWS HUCKABEE CLOSING GAP IN IOWA
A New York Times-CBS News poll in Iowa shows former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee moving squarely into second place with 21 percent support among Republican caucus-goers. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney led with 27 percent; Giuliani was third at 15 percent. The poll was taken Nov. 2-11. Error margin: plus or minus 5 points.
IOWA DEMOCRATS SIZE UP TOP 3
A New York Times-CBS News poll of Iowa Democratic caucus-goers showed that 80 percent think Clinton is well enough prepared to be president and 68 percent think Edwards is, while only 42 percent think Obama is. But 82 percent said that Obama said what he believed most of the time and 77 percent said the same about Edwards, while 48 percent said they thought that Clinton mostly said what people wanted to hear, not what she believed. The poll was taken Nov. 2-11: Error margin: plus or minus 4 points.
NEXT WEEK: Biden starts an 11-day swing through Iowa on Sunday. Giuliani attends the Ford 400 NASCAR Nextel race Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. Sen. John McCain of Arizona completes a four-day tour of New Hampshire on Monday. Edwards features singers Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne at a series of events Monday and Tuesday in Iowa.
(Steven Thomma and David Lightman contributed to this article.)