PHILADELPHIA — Her Democratic rivals criticized Sen. Hillary Clinton Tuesday as a political opportunist on issues ranging from Iran to Social Security, seeking to slow her momentum in the final two months before voting starts for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Standing at center stage, Clinton at times almost appeared to enjoy the attention as confirming her status as the front-runner for the nomination; at other times she fixed her attackers with a steely glare. She sometimes avoided a direct response, sometimes denied the accusations, and throughout kept her comments focused on President George Bush rather than engaging in direct debate with her rivals.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois went right after the New York senator in the first exchange of the evening, effectively calling her a typical politician guilty of "changing positions whenever it's political convenient" and unsuited to bring the country together to solve such challenges as health care and climate change.
"Sen. Clinton...has been for NAFTA previously, now she's against it. She has taken one position on torture several months ago and then most recently has taken a different position. She voted for a war, to authorize sending troops into Iraq, and then later said this was a war for diplomacy," Obama said.
"Now, that may be politically savvy, but I don't think that it offers the clear contrast that we need. I think what we need right now is honesty with the American people about where we would take the country."
Clinton did not respond directly, but argued that she's a forceful opponent of Republican policies.
"They want to continue the war in Iraq; I want to end it. The Republicans are waving their sabers and talking about going after Iran. I want to prevent a rush to war," she said.
"On every issue from health care for children to an energy policy that puts us on the right track to deal with climate change and make us more secure, I have been standing against the Republicans, George Bush and Dick Cheney, and I will continue to do so. And I think Democrats know that."
John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina, jumped in, saying he stood by an earlier statement accusing Clinton of double-talk.
"The American people, given this historic moment in our country's history, deserve a president of the United States that they know will tell them the truth, and won't say one thing one time and something different at a different time," he said.
He accused her, for example, of criticizing Bush's stand against Iran while also effectively giving Bush carte blanche to wage war against Iran by voting for a resolution labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.
"I am against a rush to war...I am also not in favor of doing nothing. Iran is seeking nuclear weapons," Clinton said in response. "I prefer vigorous diplomacy, and I happen to think economic sanctions are part of vigorous diplomacy."
Edwards pressed the case against Clinton most aggressively. At one point, he criticized her for saying she would end the war in Iraq while also saying she would keep combat troops there.
"If you believe that combat missions should be continued in Iraq over the long term, if you believe that combat troops should remain stationed in Iraq, and if you believe there should be no actual timetable for withdrawal, then Senator Clinton's your candidate," Edwards said.
Clinton responded that she would keep troops there to fight against al Qaida terrorists — and that she thought most the Democrats would do the same.
"We should get as many of the combat troops out as quickly as possible," Clinton said. "If we leave any troops in, like Special Operations, to go after al Qaida in Iraq, ...we don't want them just sitting around and watching them; we want them to engage them. That is a very limited mission."
Edwards was particularly harsh in condemning Clinton as captive to Washington lobbyists and unable to change the status quo, a charge she stoutly rejected.
But as the tone turned acid, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson jumped in to Clinton's defense: "I'm hearing this holier-than-thou attitude toward Sen. Clinton and it's bothering me," he said. "We need to be positive." Richardson is widely mentioned as a potential vice presidential running mate should Clinton win the nomination.
On another front, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut said that Clinton is unelectable because polls show half the country would never vote for her.
"We may not like it but a fact is a fact," Dodd said, and "we as a party need to take that into account."
On Social Security, Obama called for raising the limit on income subject to the wage tax, currently capped at $97,500.
Clinton refused to commit to any specific remedy. She said she'd shore up the federal budget and convene a bipartisan commission to fix Social Security's long-term imbalance, vowing not to punish seniors or working people. She said that saying Social Security is in crisis "is a Republican trap," despite a reminder that her husband termed in a crisis as president in 1998.
Obama agreed it's not in crisis, but said the imminent retirement of the Baby Boom generation means "it's common sense that we're going to have to do something about it. That is not a Republican talking point."
"I don't see any difference here," Clinton replied.
The two-hour debate at Drexel University was the eighth for the Democrats this year — with only two more before voting starts on Jan. 3.