Hillary Rodham Clinton was the Democrats' target in chief Tuesday night as six rivals for her party's presidential nomination attacked her on issues ranging from foreign policy to immigration to her electability.
Clinton remained unrattled until the end, when she refused to be nailed down on whether she backs New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal to provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Gov. Bill Richardson jumped to her defense, protesting "this holier-than-thou attitude towards Sen. Clinton" as "close to a personal attack."
"This is where everybody plays 'gotcha,' " said Clinton, as questioners made attempts to clarify her position. At one point the New York senator said Spitzer's proposal "makes a lot of sense." But she also said: "I did not say it should be done."
Her chief rivals pounced, with former senator John Edwards calling it an example of the "double talk" he has accused Clinton of practicing on other issues. "I can't tell whether she's for it or against it," agreed Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
The lively debate also featured Sen. Joseph Biden's charge that Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani is "absolutely unqualified" to be president, and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich's claim that he has seen a UFO.
But the evening was dominated by the intense barrage that Edwards and Obama launched against the Democratic front-runner.
The pounding grew so intense that Richardson protested "this holier-than-thou attitude" toward Clinton. He said it verged on "a personal attack."
The other candidates on the debate platform at Drexel University criticized Clinton's vote last month for a Senate resolution that labeled the Iran Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.
Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut said President Bush could cite the vote to justify a military attack against Iran. Edwards said Clinton was allying herself with neoconservatives. The resolution passed on a 76-22 vote. Clinton was one of 26 Democrats who voted in favor, including Senate Democratic leaders Harry Reid of Nevada and Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Dodd and Biden voted no, while Obama was absent.
Clinton argued that a strong message is needed to discourage Iran from building a nuclear weapon. "I am not in favor of this rush for war, but I'm also not in favor of doing nothing," she said.
On Iraq, she insisted rivals are misrepresenting her position by suggesting she's not as committed to ending the war as they are. "I stand for ending the war in Iraq, bringing our troops home," Clinton said. "But I also know it will be complicated." She said a small number of troops will stay in Iraq to guard the embassy and perhaps to hunt al-Qaeda.
Clinton dismissed charges that her more centrist foreign-policy positions put her in the same camp as the Republicans, pointing to the GOP presidential candidates' "constant obsession" with criticizing her during their debate last week. "I don't think the Republicans got the message that I'm voting and sounding like them," she said. Obama and Edwards argued that Republicans might be targeting the easiest-to-beat candidate. "It's a fight they're comfortable having," Obama said.
One Clinton supporter viewed her competitors' attacks as good news. "My granddaddy used to say, 'If you get kicked in the rear, that means you're out front,' " said Bill Gray, a former Philadelphia congressman and one of the state's most prominent African-American politicians.
Biden turned attention briefly on Giuliani. He not only questioned the former New York City mayor's qualifications but chided Giuliani's emphasis on his role in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. All Giuliani's sentences consist of "a noun, a verb and a 9/11," Biden said.
Kucinich tried to laugh off a question from NBC Meet the Press host Tim Russert about his sighting of a UFO, but did not deny the account in a book by actress Shirley MacLaine. "More people in this country have seen UFOs than I think have seen a probe of George Bush's presidency," said Kucinich.