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