Politics & Government

Clinton's strong debate solidifies her standing at front

LAS VEGAS — Hillary's back on top.

After the rockiest two weeks of her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton regained her footing this week with a strong debate showing Thursday even as her two chief rivals may have hurt themselves.

Barack Obama appeared to stumble, probably costing himself the momentum he'd been building in the first-to-vote state of Iowa, where he'd been gaining on Clinton.

John Edwards had an even worse night, seen by voters and analysts as too angry in attacking his party's front-runner.

The candidates' performances and reactions to them suggest that what had seemed to be a moment when the race's dynamics might be shifting away from Clinton now seems to have passed. The contest is back to its pre-Halloween landscape, with Clinton steady in the lead.

"She lifted herself up and put her opponents down at the same time," Republican pollster Frank Luntz said. "It was a double-edged victory."

Voters who watched the two-hour debate tended to describe Clinton as smooth and commanding, while criticizing Obama as waffling and Edwards as mean.

"She handled herself very well," said Pat Goodall, a retired university professor from Las Vegas.

Clinton put Obama on the defensive quickly, the first time she's come down from a perch above the fray and taken on her Democratic opponents directly.

She attacked his health-care proposal as less than universal, prompting him to assert falsely that his plan would cover all the nation's uninsured.

Later, he had a difficult time when asked whether he supports driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, the same question that tripped up Clinton two weeks earlier. He tried several times to give a complicated answer about immigration policy before he said flatly that he supports letting them get licenses.

"Obama was uneven," Goodall said. "When he was asked about the driver's licenses, he didn't answer the question. The crowd reacted negatively, and they were right."

Edwards challenged Clinton throughout the debate, a tactic that drew blood two weeks ago but a backlash this week.

"Edwards slipped a little in my eyes with his negative comments. He hurt himself," said Kathleen Starks, a retiree from Las Vegas.

Not everyone turned on Edwards for his sharp edge.

"I don't understand why that's a bad thing," said Robert Johnstone of Las Vegas, who said he recently went through nearly a year as a homeless person. "We need someone who's a little angry . . . a little fire and brimstone."

Still, Luntz found the same reactions from a focus group of 29 Nevada Democrats who watched the debate. He said many warmed to Clinton through the evening, while many thought Edwards was "angry, vicious, with nothing to say" and Obama "wandered, he didn't get to the point."

Clinton had stumbled in a debate Oct. 30 in Philadelphia, challenged by rivals as two-faced on several issues and appearing to take both sides on the driver's license question.

Afterward, her supporters portrayed her as a female victim of unfair male attacks, then backed off under criticism of playing the gender card.

Her lead in Iowa dropped, from 11 percentage points to 4 points in one poll, from 10 to 6 in another, and from 5 to 2 in a third.

"The last two weeks were not good terrain for Senator Clinton," said Ken Duberstein, a Republican strategist and former Reagan White House chief of staff who watched the debate in Las Vegas.

But Thursday, he said, "she was strong, she was concise, she was direct."

Edwards, he said, "is coming across as too angry. He comes across as shrill. You're going to see him diminish in some of the polls."

Obama, he added, "was OK, but OK is not sufficient. . . . The debate forum is not one he does very well." He said he was surprised that Obama didn't have a concise answer to the driver's license question ready.

"The idea that they did not anticipate the question boggles the mind," he said. "He wasn't prepared to answer the question."

The result?

"Is she in the driver's seat? Yes, with a license," Duberstein said. "It is hers to lose. But she still is capable of losing it."