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Tuesday night in Philadelphia was not the first Democratic debate where Senator Hillary Clinton has been the target of attacks from her rivals. But it is the first time that the frontrunner was put on the defensive so often. She refused to be pinned down about Social Security or Iran, and she gave confusing answers about whether she supported driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
And, as NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, Senator Clinton was also not forthcoming about the reasons that her husband's White House records have not been released.
MARA LIASSON: Hillary Clinton's advisers say her steely performance under withering fire from almost all of her male rivals and the male moderator of Tuesday's debate shows how tough she is. But her opponents are saying that her answers resurrected the old stereotype: that she can be secretive, less than candid, and that she wants to have it both ways. They point to the exchange over the National Archives' release of her husband's papers. Here's how it started: with a question from MSNBC moderator Tim Russert.
(Soundbite of Democratic presidential debate)
Mr. TIM RUSSERT (Moderator, Presidential Debate): Senator Clinton, in order to give the American people an opportunity to make a judgment about your experience, would you allow the National Archives to release the documents about your communications with the president, the advice you gave, because, as you well know, President Clinton has asked the National Archives not to do anything until 2012?
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): Well, actually, Tim, the archives is moving as rapidly as the archives move. There's about 20 million pieces of paper there. And they are moving and they are releasing as they do their process, and I am fully in favor of that.
Mr. RUSSERT: But there was a letter written by President Clinton specifically asking that any communication between you and the president not be made available to the public until 2012. Would you lift that ban?
Sen. CLINTON: Well, that's not my decision to make, but, certainly, we'll move as quickly as our circumstances in the processes of the National Archives permits.
LIASSON: Then, Barack Obama jumped in.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Now we have just gone through one of the most secretive administrations in our history. And not releasing, I think, these records, at the same time, Hillary, as you're making the claim that this is the basis for your experience, I think, is a problem. Part of what we have to do is invite the American people back to participate in their government again. Part of what we need to do is rebuild trust in our government, again.
LIASSON: While it's true that the Bush administration has made the National Archives process for releasing presidential records more cumbersome and time-consuming, it's also true that Bill Clinton has asked the archives not to release personal correspondence between himself and his wife.
Carl Bernstein is the author of "A Woman in Charge," a biography of Hillary Clinton.
Mr. CARL BERNSTEIN (Author, "A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton"): Now she's got herself in the position where she has been apparently, again, disingenuous by saying, oh, well, it's all up to the archives. It's not all up to the archives. It's up to her husband. I would think that she certainly has the wherewithal to say, hey, Bill, why don't we put these records out there?
LIASSON: In fact, the National Archives is ready to release 26,000 pages of Bill Clinton's records, but it's waiting for the green light from Clinton's lawyer, Bruce Lindsey, who has not finished his review of the papers. So the delay is not, as Senator Clinton claimed on Tuesday, completely beyond her control.
Clinton's opponents were quick to predict that the flap over the archives would dent her claim to electability. They say it was deja vu all over again, recalling fights during the Clinton administration over access to documents like the couple's tax records or Mrs. Clinton's law firm billing records.
As if on cue, the Wall Street Journal editorial page wrote that her answers in the debate were, quote, "Clintonesque." Carl Bernstein doesn't think we've heard the last of this particular issue.
Mr. BERNSTEIN: In that debate the other night, the issue was finally raised. Hey, what do we want? Do we want another president that is not candid, that is not committed to openness? Do we really want another one after the Bush presidency? And that is what's going to haunt her, I suspect, through this campaign and it has changed the dynamic.
LIASSON: It changed the dynamic from what was looking like a pre-ordained coronation to a vigorous fight for the nomination. The debate on Tuesday was the first time that Clinton's Democratic rivals were able to shine a spotlight on some of the weaknesses of a candidate who, until now, has been an unscathed frontrunner.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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