Dems Vying for President Wary of Attacking Clinton

Democratic presidential hopefuls shy away from throwing hard punches at Sen. Hillary Clinton, who holds the lead, but are cautious of making her weak before Republican rivals.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

All right. So did Hillary Clinton's rivals succeed in raising doubts about the Democratic frontrunner?

To talk more about that, we turn now to NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Especially, Juan, Barack Obama and John Edwards, they're desperately trying to gain any ground against Senator Clinton. Did they manage that last night?

WILLIAMS: Well, this was the seventh debate that the Democrats have had, Renee, and the first in a month. And I think in that month the landscape has significantly shifted with Senator Clinton now taking a really significant lead and also in the fundraising as well as the polls. So you had attacks coming on Iraq, on her vote on Iran on the Revolutionary Guard being designated as terrorists, and on Social Security. But I don't think that they landed a glove. I mean, in a sense, they could raise issues about differences on her vote on even going back to authorizing President Bush to go to war in Iran, but I don't think that they landed a glove significantly strong enough to say that they knocked that - knocked her out or raise significant doubts among Democratic voters.

MONTAGNE: You're talking about laying the glove. Senator Obama gave an interview to the New York Times over the weekend in which he said he was going to begin confronting Hillary Clinton more forcefully. You know, did he throw - did he live up to his words, throw some punches?

WILLIAMS: Well, he did throw some punches. He raised the question as to whether or not Republicans are talking so much about Senator Clinton because they're looking forward to running against her, which raises the electability question: if you're Democrat and you really want to win the White House, is Hillary Clinton the right Democrat to put forward? John Edwards picked up on it, and I think John Edwards actually was far more aggressive in going after Hillary Clinton - Senator Clinton on so many issues. But, again, the issue is, did you land a sufficiently strong blow that it was going to raise questions among people who seemed to be coalescing around Senator Clinton as the leading Democratic candidate?

MONTAGNE: Of course, Hillary Clinton's challengers are walking something of a tight rope. They want her to fall down but they don't to be seen tripping her up.

WILLIAMS: Yes, exactly right, Renee. This is an interesting problem. They want to go back again to the war issue because that's the dominant issue of the campaign. But you get Senator Obama, for example, raising the issue about the release of Senator Clinton's correspondence when she was first lady of the United States and why it hasn't been put out there - suggesting that she's very secretive, that she's simply saying what people want to hear conveniently, but actually a centrist, not truly in keeping with the liberal leanings of much of the party's base. These are the kinds of insinuations. But is it the kind of punch - in using the analogy we've been stake-sticking with this morning, Renee - that you think is going to raise significant questions in the minds of Democratic voters. It didn't seem to be case the last night.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, the talk of the Democratic Party is that Hillary may be the strongest Democrat in the primaries but possibly the weakest in the general election. That is the easiest target for the GOP. Why didn't we hear arguments along those lines last night?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that you are starting to hear those questions about the electability but they're not in full throat yet. And I think part of this is that, of course, you don't want to be accused if you're one of her fellow Democrats of setting her up for defeat, sort of right, you know, weakening her so that she's more vulnerable to coming attacks from Republicans. And the second part of this, Renee, is I think there's more to come. I think there's more and more in the ear sort of scurrilous personal attacks that are being launched against Senator Clinton and…

MONTAGNE: Juan?

WILLIAMS: …Democrats decided they're not ready to do that yet.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. NPR News analyst Juan Williams.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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Democratic Presidential Debate Targets Clinton

One question loomed as the Democrats running for president gathered for a debate at Drexel University in Philadelphia: How would Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's rivals come after her?

Clinton continues to lead in the polls, with just two months left before the first official primary test takes place in Iowa.

Democrats Barack Obama and John Edwards sharply challenged Clinton's candor, consistency and judgment Tuesday night in the televised debate that underscored her front-runner status.

In the opening moments of the debate, NBC's Brian Williams, the moderator, turned to Obama and asked about his recent accusation that Clinton has been voting like a Republican.

"That is a strong charge, as you're aware. Specifically, what are the issues where you, Senator Obama, and Senator Clinton have differed, where you think she has sounded or voted like a Republican?" Williams asked.

"Well, first of all, I think some of this stuff gets over hyped. 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," Obama said, adding that Clinton has changed her position on issues such as trade, the definition of torture and the Iraq war.

"She voted for a war, to authorize sending troops into Iraq, and then later said this was a war for diplomacy. ... Now, that may be politically savvy, but I don't think that it offers the clear contrast that we need."

Clinton, standing between Obama and Edwards, largely shrugged off the remarks and defended her positions. She has been the focus of Republican candidates' "conversations and consternation," she said, because she is leading in the polls.

"On every issue from health care for children to an energy policy that puts us on the right track to deal with climate change and make us more secure, I have been standing against the Republicans, George Bush and Dick Cheney, and I will continue to do so," Clinton said.

Her rivals, however, did not let up. Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut went after Clinton for voting in favor of an anti-Iran resolution favored by the Bush administration.

"I believe that this issue is going to come back to haunt us," Dodd said. "We all learned, some of us here painfully back in 2002, that by voting for an authorization regarding Iraq, that despite the language of that resolution, which called for diplomacy at the time, this administration used that resolution, obviously, to pursue a very aggressive action in Iraq."

Edwards jumped on the same vote, suggesting that if the president were to invade Iran, Clinton may offer the same explanation she gave for authorizing force in Iraq.

"Are we going to hear, 'If only I had known then what I know now?'" he asked.

Few of the punches landed on the front-runner, however, until co-moderator Tim Russert of NBC brought up a decision by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer to offer a type of driver's license to illegal residents. Clinton offered up a confusing answer that suggested she reluctantly supported the measure.

It gave her opponents an opening.

"Unless I missed something, 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. "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 dove at this chance as well: "Well, 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. You know, one of the things that we have to do in this country is to be honest about the challenges that we face."

But not everyone joined in. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he thought the campaign should stay positive, while Delaware Sen. Joe Biden said he was not running against Clinton, but to lead the free world.

Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich tried to differentiate himself from all others on stage. He called for impeaching President Bush, and end to funding the war in Iraq and a new system of health care paid for by the federal government. But nothing distinguished Kucinich as much as when he was asked whether the rumor about him was true.

"Now, did you see a UFO?" Russert asked to laughter from the audience.

"I did. ... It was (an) unidentified flying object, OK. It's like — it's unidentified. I saw something," he said.

With additional reporting from The Associated Press

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