After months of smooth sailing in the presidential race, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday foundered over the issue that has roiled New York politics for weeks: whether illegal immigrants should get driver's licenses.
Clinton's campaign issued a statement clarifying that she supports Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's plan to do so, but her opponents and political pundits continued to savage her conflicting responses to a question on the issue during a Democratic presidential debate Tuesday in Philadelphia.
"She's known for taking one position with one audience and another position with another audience," the Republican presidential front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, said in a campaign appearance here. "What we didn't know is that she actually can take two different positions in front of the same audience -- within one minute."
Giuliani and others piled on in wake of an exchange between Clinton, several other candidates and debate moderator Tim Russert of NBC News.
After Russert noted that Clinton told a New Hampshire newspaper that it made sense to offer driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut told Clinton: "You thought it made sense to do it."
"No, I didn't, Chris," Clinton said in response.
Minutes later, Clinton decried the federal government's failure to handle the immigration issue and said of the Spitzer proposal:
"It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problem."
That prompted former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina to say:
"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. I mean, America is looking for a president who will say the same thing, who will be consistent, who will be straight with them."
Meanwhile, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said he was "confused" by Clinton's statement on immigrant licenses.
Wednesday, Giuliani lashed out at Clinton's comments on Glenn Beck's syndicated radio show, on the Sean Hannity Show and on the campaign trail, and Obama did the same in an interview with the Associated Press.
During the debate, "Sen. Clinton left us wondering where she stood on every single hard question from Iran to Social Security to driver's licenses for undocumented workers," Obama said.
The attacks on Clinton didn't stop there. Pundits Mark Halperin of Time magazine and Roger Simon of the Politico criticized Clinton's comments, as did conservative bloggers Michelle Malkin and Eric Sheie.
Amid the furor, Clinton campaign spokesman Blake Zeff offered a statement trying to clarify her position.
"Sen. Clinton supports governors like Gov. Spitzer who believe they need such a measure to deal with the crisis caused by this administration's failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform," he said.
Asked for more details of Clinton's position, Zeff declined to offer them.
Giuliani said Clinton's comments on the driver's license issue were emblematic of a candidate who changes both her policy positions and even her accent based on her audience.
What's more, Giuliani said that Clinton was wrong to show so much sympathy for Spitzer's position.
"My answer to it is no. Of course you don't give out driver's licenses to illegals," Giuliani said on the Glenn Beck Show. "Among other things, it'll make it even more difficult to deal with all the fraud, all the forgery that's going on."
Giuliani signed an executive order while serving as New York mayor, barring city agencies from asking applicants for city services about their immigration status. And on Wednesday, Giuliani spokesman Jeff Barker defended that move, noting that Giuliani's two predecessors issued the same order and saying it allowed illegal immigrants to report crimes.
Giuliani indicated that the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants shouldn't cause a presidential candidate to stumble.
"Last night, the question, my goodness, was about driver's licenses," the former mayor told several dozen voters while campaigning at Bickford's Family Restaurant in Nashua. "It's not like it's a tough question. If this is a tough question, I can't imagine the questions about Iran or Iraq, how tough they would be."
While refusing to be pinned down, Clinton appeared largely sympathetic to the Spitzer plan during the debate.
"What Gov. Spitzer is trying to do is fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform," she said.
"We know in New York we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally. They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds. It's probability."
Yet she later said: "I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Gov. Spitzer is trying to do" this.
In contrast, two of her Democratic opponents offered much clearer positions.
"A license is a privilege, and that ought not to be extended, in my view," to illegal immigrants, said Dodd.
Obama, meantime, stood strong with Spitzer's position.
"I think that it is the right idea, and I disagree with Chris because there is a public safety concern," he said. "We can make sure that drivers who are illegal come out of the shadows, that they can be tracked, that they are properly trained, and that will make our roads safer."
Spitzer was reluctant to reflect on whether he saw any irony in the fact that the candidate he endorsed -- Clinton -- might appear to be on the fence on the issue while Obama backs the license plan.
"I'm not going to pass judgment on what's ironic and what isn't," Spitzer said. "My sense of irony may be different from somebody else's."
News Albany Bureau Reporter Tom Precious contributed to this report.