Politics & Government

Clinton looks defensive in Philly debate

WASHINGTON — It took nearly 10 months, but Hillary Clinton finally stumbled this week on her march to the Democratic presidential nomination.

Rivals attacked her with gusto on issues from Iran to illegal immigration in a Philadelphia debate. Increasingly over two hours, Clinton looked defensive.

Key moment: When co-moderator Tim Russert asked her about a plan to let illegal immigrants in her state get driver's licenses. It's politically tricky: Hispanics are an important voting bloc for Democrats and favor benefits for illegal immigrants. But the country as a whole opposes driver's licenses for them by 3-to-1.

Clinton ducked and weaved, taking both sides — or neither.

Rivals pounced.

"Changing positions whenever it's politically convenient," said Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

"Unless I missed something," said former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, "Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes."

By week's end, Clinton's camp tried to change the focus. They attacked the journalist who posed the tough questions. They attacked her rivals for ganging up on her. And they played the gender card, noting that it was all men criticizing the only woman on the stage.

Will it matter?

Clinton strategist Mark Penn said she'd end up being seen as a victim of an unfair attack and gain female voters.

But playing the victim risks undercutting Clinton's image as a strong woman ready to take on a world of terrorists and threats.


Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio had to admit this week that he once saw a UFO.

Asked at the debate, he said he saw one once, but he stressed that he didn't know what it was, implicitly denying that he necessarily thought it was from another planet.

"It's unidentified," he said.

He also denied a report from noted oddball actress Shirley MacLaine — who was with him at the time — that he felt a connection to the craft in his heart and direction in his mind.

Kucinich observed that he's not alone, pointing out that former President Jimmy Carter and 14 percent of Americans also say they've seen unidentified flying objects.

"More people in this country have seen UFOs than, I think, approve of George Bush's presidency," he said.

Technically, that's not true; Bush's approval rating hovers around 30 percent.


Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware nailed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican who wasn't present, during Tuesday's debate:

"Rudy Giuliani ... I mean, think about it! Rudy Giuliani. There's only three things he mentions in a sentence — a noun, a verb and 9/11. There's nothing else! There's nothing else! And I mean this sincerely. He's genuinely not qualified to be president."

Giuliani's communications director, Katie Levinson, hit back in a statement: "Senator Biden certainly falls into the bucket of those on the stage tonight who have never had executive experience and have never run anything. Wait, I take that back. Senator Biden has never run anything but his mouth. "


Giuliani said that Washington must take responsibility for stopping illegal immigration, not employers, states or cities. Speaking in a conference call organized Tuesday by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, an influential small-business lobby, Giuliani said he wouldn't punish employers for hiring illegal immigrants — unlike many rivals. Giuliani said his plan for tough border enforcement and issuing legal immigrants tamper-proof ID cards would solve the problem "in a very short while."


A new University of Iowa poll puts Republican Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, into a virtual tie for second place with Giuliani. Huckabee was at 12.8 percent; Giuliani at 13.1 percent.

Both badly trail former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who's at 36 percent. Romney has advertised heavily in Iowa, unlike his opponents.

Among Democrats, Clinton led with 28.9 percent, Obama was second at 26.6 percent, and Edwards placed third at 20 percent.

That's troubling for Edwards, who's effectively banking his whole campaign on Iowa. The same poll had him at 26 percent in August.

The new polls were taken Oct. 17-24. Error margin: 5.8 percent for Republicans, 5.5 percent for Democrats.


Romney's campaign got a boost this week when popular New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg backed him.

"If you would have said that I would endorse a former governor of Massachusetts, I wouldn't believe you," Gregg joked. "But then again, I wouldn't believe that the Red Sox would ever win two World Series in my lifetime, either."

Romney continued to lead polls in New Hampshire, the nation's first primary state, by an average of 8 percentage points over Giuliani, according to RealClearPolitics.com.


Clinton won the nod from the 1.4 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the nation's largest public-sector union.

Edwards picked up the endorsement of the 10,000-member New Hampshire Service Employees International Union. He'd previously won endorsements from SEIU chapters in Iowa and 10 other states.

Both unions are important players in Democratic politics. Their members provide important get-out-the-vote troops.


Iowa Democrats this week joined Republicans in setting their first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses for Jan. 3.

New Hampshire's determined to hold the first primary, but hasn't committed to a date yet. It could come anytime between Dec. 1 and Jan. 8.

Otherwise, here's the presidential-voting calendar, as of now:

Jan. 3: Iowa caucuses

Jan. 5: Wyoming Republican caucuses

Jan. 15: Michigan primary

Jan. 19: South Carolina Republican primary

Jan. 19: Nevada Democratic caucuses

Jan. 26: South Carolina Democratic primary

Jan. 29: Florida primary

Feb. 5: Primaries in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah. Also, a Democratic primary in Idaho and Democratic caucuses in Kansas and New Mexico.


Clinton, Obama and Edwards all appear Sunday at Rep. Bruce Braley's "Bruce, Blues and BBQ" event in Davenport, Iowa.

(Matt Stearns contributed.)