Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., faced a barrage of stinging critiques from her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination Tuesday night, with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former Sen. John Edwards accusing her of flip-flopping on key issues and supporting a resolution that some fear could lead to war in Iran.
After publicly promising to sharpen his rhetoric in his battle against Clinton, Obama, started the debate by highlighting areas where he said the Democratic frontrunner has shifted positions when it's "politically convenient."
Obama said 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 (vote) for diplomacy."
Edwards highlighted Clinton's vote on the Iran resolution, saying it was "written literally by the neocons," and delivered a series of sharp jabs that cast Clinton as the candidate of the status quo.
"She says she will end the war, but she continues to say she'll keep combat troops in Iraq and continue combat missions in Iraq," said Edwards, D-N.C. "To me, that's not ending the war; that's the continuation of the war."
On the Iran resolution, he said: "If Bush invades Iran six months from now, I mean, are we going to hear: 'If only I had known then what I know now?'"
But Clinton, with a wide lead in the polls, stayed above the fray. She seldom directly engaged the other candidates on the stage at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and instead cast herself in ways that contrast her views with those of the Bush administration and other Republicans.
"I don't think the Republicans got the message that I'm voting and sounding like them," said Clinton, D-N.Y. "If you watched their debate last week, I seemed to be the topic of great conversation and consternation, and that's for a reason, because I have stood against George Bush and his failed policies."
"In a perverse way, I think that, you know, the Republicans and their constant obsession with me demonstrates clearly that they obviously think that I am communicating effectively about what I will do as president," Clinton said.
But as the two-hour debate closed, Clinton may have handed her rivals a fresh issue. Clinton equivocated on whether she supports Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants in her home state of New York.
"I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Gov. Spitzer is trying to do it," Clinton said.
Her rivals pounced.
"Sen. Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes just a few minutes ago, and I think this is a real issue for the country," Edwards said.
Said Obama: "I was confused on Sen. Clinton's answer. I can't tell whether she was for it or against it, and I do think that is important."
Tuesday night's debate had the build-up of an all-out brawl, with Obama priming the fight by saying he would draw sharper distinctions between himself and Clinton. With Edwards and others joining in on the battle, the attacks came in all forms, with a shared target: Clinton.
Obama himself made light of the highly anticipated battle.