After her roughest two weeks on the presidential campaign trail, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton showed up on a debate stage in Las Vegas Thursday night with a new aggressive game plan and appeared to successfully get her campaign ship back on course.
In her new strategy, Clinton not only acknowledged her preparation for more incoming heat — "this pantsuit, it's asbestos tonight" — but also went on the offense against her two main rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Early on in the evening, she delivered what was clearly a planned hit on Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's health-care plan. "[Sen. Obama] talks a lot about stepping up and taking responsibility and taking strong positions," Clinton said. "But when it came time to step up and decide whether or not he would support universal health-care coverage, he chose not to do that. His plan would leave 15 million Americans out. That's about the population of Nevada, Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire," she added in a nod to the four key states that kick off the nomination contest in January.
Clinton also made sure to point out that former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards did not propose a universal health-care plan in his first presidential campaign in 2004.
Obama attempted to continue to portray Clinton as a waffler — a characterization that took root at the last Democratic debate and has been dogging her ever since. "What the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions, and that is not what we've seen out of Sen. Clinton on a host of issues," Obama said.
However, Clinton delivered a performance that provided little evidence to support that accusation Thursday evening. For example, she finally narrowed her answer about whether or not illegal immigrants should be able to acquire drivers' licenses to a single word, "no."
In fact, it was Obama who seemed to struggle with his answer to the question about drivers' licenses. CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked, "Do you support or oppose driver's licenses for illegal immigrants?" And Obama tried to dance on the head of a pin. "I am not proposing that that's what we do," he said before adding, "I support the notion that we have to deal with public safety and that driver's licenses at the same level can make that happen."
After rocking Clinton's campaign back on its heels for a couple of weeks, this issue may now force Obama to continue to explain why he supports a broadly unpopular position among Democrats and Republicans.
Edwards, whose presence didn't seem to dominate this debate as it did the last one, went after Clinton for defending the status quo in Washington. "She continues to defend a system that does not work, that is broken, that is rigged and is corrupt," Edwards said.
Again, Clinton pushed back. "I don't mind taking hits on my record on issues, but when someone starts throwing mud at least we can hope that it's both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook," she said.
Clinton also got the opportunity to work in a special appeal to women voters when CNN's Campbell Brown asked her what she meant at Wellesley a couple of weeks ago when she mentioned the all "boys club" of presidential politics. Clinton responded with a sly and knowing, "Campbell… " She went on to say, "Well, it is clear, I think, from women's experiences that from time to time, there may be some impediments."
Obama delivered his toughest hit on Clinton when discussing her refusal to endorse lifting the salary cap on taxable income for Social Security.
"Understand that only 6 percent of Americans make more than $97,000 a year. So 6 percent is not the middle class. It is the upper class. You know, this is the kind of thing that I would expect from [Republican presidential hopefuls] Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani, where we start playing with numbers. We start playing with numbers in order to try to make a point," said Obama.
"And we can't do that. No, no, no. This is too important — this is too important for us to pretend that we are using numbers like a trillion dollar tax cut instead of responsibly dealing with the problem," he added. However, the punch didn't land cleanly because he clearly meant to say tax hike instead of "cut" and Clinton made sure to correct him, like a teacher would to her student, during her next response.
There are still seven weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses and clearly much can happen between now and then. But this much is clear: This 16-day period of Clinton playing defense and struggling to get a handle on all the attacks coming from her opponents has come to a close. Obama and Edwards will now have to look for another opportunity to grab a foothold to drive the narrative as cleanly as they were able to do over the last couple of weeks. Luckily for them, in the volatile world of presidential politics such an opportunity may not be that far off in the distance.