PHILADELPHIA -- Near the end of a Democratic debate Tuesday where she deflected most darts aimed at her by her rivals, White House hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) just would not say whether she backed a proposal by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
Clinton protested to NBC's Tim Russert, "This is where everybody plays gotcha.'' Her refusal to be pinned down allowed former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) to accuse her of double-talk and let Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) question her candor.
"Unless I missed something, Senator 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," said Edwards. "I mean, America is looking for a president who will say the same thing, who will be consistent, who will be straight with them."
Obama said, "Well, I was confused on Senator Clinton's answer. I can't tell whether she was for it or against it."
The exchange was a rare Clinton debate misstep because the dust-up would not have happened if she did not jump in for a second try on the question. Russert had noted Clinton told a New Hampshire newspaper she backed the controversial Spitzer plan.
"I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it," Clinton said.
Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) called her out. "Wait a minute. No, no, no. You said yes, you thought it made sense to do it. Replied Clinton, "No, I didn't, Chris."
On the surface, the question about licenses reflected the larger national debate about the millions of illegal immigrants in the United States. Congress has not been able to pass an immigration overhaul, despite the backing of President Bush. In the context of this debate at Drexel University with seven Democrats on the stage, Clinton's answer let Obama and Edwards question her credibility.
Much of the drama in the runup to the debate was the result of Obama and Edwards telegraphing their intended punches for the past several days.
In the opening round of the debate, Obama downplayed the expectations he helped raise over whether he will be more aggressive taking on Clinton.
"I think some of this stuff gets overhyped," Obama said. "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.''
Until the flap over driver's licenses, Clinton, however, did not need much rescuing.
Clinton deflected suggestions Obama made in a New York Times interview that she was sounding Republican.
"I don't think the Republicans got the message that I'm voting and sounding like them. 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."
Clinton talked about Republicans and their "constant obsession with me," saying, "We have got to turn the page on George Bush and Dick Cheney. In fact we have to throw the whole book away."
The "turn-the-page" line -- an Obama standard on the stump -- triggered a stepped-up response from Obama.
"Part of the reason that Republicans, I think, are obsessed with you, Hillary," said Obama, "is because that's a fight they're very comfortable having. It is the fight that we've been through since the '90s. What we don't need is another eight years of bickering."
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