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.
"I think some of this stuff gets overhyped," Obama said. In a Philadelphia movie reference, he added, "In fact, I think this has been the most hyped fight since Rocky fought Apollo Creed, although the amazing thing is I'm Rocky in this situation."
The sharp exchanges mark a more intense phase of the battle for the Democratic nomination, with barely two months left before Iowans cast the first votes for president.
Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., was one of the few candidates to come to Clinton's defense.
"I'm hearing this holier-than-thou attitude toward Senator Clinton," Richardson said. "That is bothering me because it's pretty close to personal attacks that we don't need. Do we trust her? Do we -- she takes money from special interests. We need to be positive in this campaign. Yes, we need to point out our differences, and I have big differences with her."
While most of those on stage focused on Clinton, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., took aim at the Republican frontrunner, former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y.
"Rudy Giuliani -- there's, there's only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11. I mean, there's nothing else," Biden said. "Rudy Giuliani -- probably the most underqualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency."
Though Clinton said the attacks she's getting from Republicans speak to her history fighting for Democratic causes, her rivals had their own opinions about why they keep bringing up her name.
"They may actually want to run against you, and that's the reason they keep bringing you up," Edwards said. "Will she be the person who brings about the change in this country? You know, I -- I believe in Santa Claus, I believe in the Tooth Fairy, but I don't think that's going to happen. I really don't. And I -- I think that if people want the status quo, Senator Clinton's your candidate."
Obama's theory: "Part of the reason that Republicans, I think, are obsessed with you, Hillary, is because that's a fight they're very comfortable having. It is the fight that we've been through since the '90s."
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., argued that Clinton may not be electable. "Whether it's fair or not fair, the fact of the matter is that my colleague from -- from New York, Senator Clinton, there are 50 percent of the American public that say they're not going to vote for her."
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, made perhaps the most startling admission of the night, when asked by moderator Tim Russert whether he in fact saw a UFO.
"I did," he said. "It was unidentified flying object, OK. It's like -- it's unidentified. I saw something."