Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton took off the gloves Thursday at a Democratic presidential debate, for the first time fighting back hard at shots aimed at her by her rivals -- and most notably accusing former Sen. John Edwards of "throwing mud."
In a raucous two-hour session at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Clinton, of New York, stood her ground and gave far clearer answers than she did during a much-criticized debate performance in Philadelphia two weeks ago.
Most notably, after Edwards repeated his charge that Clinton is in thrall to corporate interests, Clinton indicated his comments were "right out of the Republican playbook" and added: "For him to be throwing this mud and making these charges I think really detracts from what we're trying to do here tonight. We need to put forth a positive agenda for America."
The debate, telecast on CNN, was the eighth for the Democrats in the long march to the beginning of the presidential voting season in Iowa on Jan. 3.
It was also the liveliest, as the top candidates drew sharp distinctions among each other in terms of substance and style.
* When asked if she supported driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, Clinton -- who had given vague answers to the question for more than two weeks -- simply said: "No." Meanwhile, Obama stumbled over the same question.
Clinton and Obama put forth starkly different views on foreign policy, with Clinton stressing national security above everything else and Obama stressing that national security and human rights should complement each other.
*Clinton conceded that the North American Free Trade Agreement -- a hallmark of her husband's presidency -- was a mistake.
*When an Iraq War veteran and his mother asked a question about Iran, Edwards and Obama profusely thanked the young man for his service, while Clinton thanked him in a perfunctory way in one phrase in the middle of a long sentence.
The debate began where the last one left off, with Clinton on the defensive against allegations that she refuses to take firm stands on key issues.
"I am aware that some people say that, but I think that the American people know where I've stood for 35 years," Clinton said. "I've been fighting for issues affecting women and children, workers and families."
That didn't stop Obama from repeating the allegation.
"What the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions, and that is not what we've seen out of Sen. Clinton on a host of issues," the Illinois senator, who ranks second to Clinton in Democratic polls, said.
But Clinton didn't let that stand, lashing out at Obama for offering a health care reform plan that would leave 15 million people without coverage.
"He talks a lot about stepping up and taking responsibility and taking strong positions," she said. "But when it came time to step up and decide whether or not he would support universal health care coverage, he chose not to do that."
Clinton fought back hard, too, against Edwards.
"The most important issue is she says she will bring change to Washington, while she continues to defend a system that does not work, that is broken, that is rigged and is corrupt," said Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina.
In response, Clinton said: "I don't mind taking hits on my record on issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook."
The candidates sparred again on the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, the issue Clinton stumbled over in the Philadelphia debate.
A day after New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer abandoned his driver's license plan and after Clinton finally came out against licenses for undocumented aliens, the issue prompted a rambling, unclear answer from Obama.
Saying the matter "has now become a wedge issue," Obama refused moderator Wolf Blitzer's entreaties to give a clear yes or no answer on whether he supports those driver's licenses.
After saying, "I am not proposing that that's what we do," Obama said: "I support the notion that we have to deal with public safety and that driver's licenses at the same level can make that happen."
Edwards and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico said they back driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, while Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware said they opposed it. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio stressed the need for a way for undocumented aliens to gain legal status.
Those candidates, who lag behind Clinton, Obama and Edwards in the polls, struggled for air time throughout the debate.
The showdown included echoes of earlier debates on foreign policy issues, where Obama and Clinton offered starkly different answers when asked if human rights are more important than American security.
"The concepts are not contradictory," Obama said. "They are complementary."
Clinton then said: "The first obligation of the president of the United States is to protect and defend the United States of America. That doesn't mean that it is to the exclusion of other interests."
Clinton also reiterated her newly critical view of foreign trade, saying: "NAFTA was a mistake to the extent that it did not deliver on what we had hoped it would, and that's why I call for trade timeout."
A poignant moment in the debate came when an Iraq War veteran and his mother asked a question about a possible war with Iran.
Both Edwards and Obama took Clinton to task for voting for a resolution declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization.
Edwards and Obama had effusive words for the young veteran.
"Well, Chris, we appreciate your service," Obama said.
Edwards said: "God bless you for what you did for us and for America."
"The only thing I would add, in addition to thanking you for your service, is that, having been in Iraq, you know that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has assisted the militias and others in killing Americans and in maiming them," Clinton said.