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Clinton Regroups As Rivals Pounce

By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 1, 2007

After a rare night of fumbles by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination rushed to maximize the damage yesterday, even as her advisers argued that the "piling on" engaged in by an all-male field of opponents will ultimately drive more female voters into her camp.

Clinton strategists grudgingly acknowledged that the performance in Tuesday's debate in Philadelphia was not her finest and they sought to contain the fallout. They worked to clarify her muddled response to a question about whether she supports giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants -- she backs it, they said -- and quickly produced a video, titled "The Politics of Pile-On," splicing together in rapid-fire fashion her rivals' attacks from the event.

With little more than two months until the first primary contest, in Iowa, strategists for all the Democratic contenders agreed that the debate marked a turning point and would open a newly aggressive phase in the race.

Clinton (N.Y.) sought to move forward yesterday and secure her position as the Democratic front-runner, accepting a major labor endorsement in Washington. But rivals focused on her missteps, in particular what they said was her defensive tone on the issues of Social Security and how to approach Iran, her unwillingness to freely share her and her husband's White House papers from the 1990s, and especially her equivocation on the driver's-license issue. Critics said Clinton's performance played into a pre-existing caricature: that she is both secretive and calculating in her quest to win. Even Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan weighed in to describe Clinton as "scary."

Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) -- widely viewed as the most aggressive attacker Tuesday -- is planning to kick off a new advertising campaign in Iowa today, with a 60-second spot that his strategists hope will boost his newly improved profile. Edwards challenged Clinton most forcefully on what he called "double talk" in her rhetoric, after weeks on the campaign trail questioning her integrity.

Edwards was hardly alone in heaping criticism on the front-runner at the debate. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) challenged Clinton for not releasing documents from her time as first lady, and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) accused her of giving President Bush license to invade Iran with her vote to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist entity.

Clinton advisers privately criticized her opponents and the debate's moderators. One strategist argued that nearly half of the questions posed by NBC's Brian Williams and Tim Russert were aimed at Clinton, with other candidates taking softball questions about Halloween costumes (Obama) and unidentified flying objects (Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio).

"They really went from 'Let's talk about what I believe' to 'Let me try to do a gotcha against Hillary Clinton,' " said one Clinton adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Ultimately, it was six guys against her, and she came off as one strong woman."

Caught seemingly unprepared for a question about whether she backs a proposal by New York Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, Clinton appeared to equivocate, prompting barbs from Edwards and Obama. Yesterday, her campaign issued a terse statement intended to clear up her position, although it, too, was vaguely worded.

"Senator Clinton supports governors like Governor Spitzer who believe they need such a measure to deal with the crisis caused by this administration's failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform. As President, her goal will be to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would make this unnecessary," the statement said. Campaign advisers, pressed to explain her view more clearly, said that she ultimately supports the driver's-license proposal.

Her rivals clearly remained delighted by the turn of events. Edwards, in an interview with liberal talk show host Ed Schultz, promised to "keep pounding the drum on making certain the voters know they have these choices" between what he described as the entrenched special interests in Washington, represented by Clinton, and advocates of change such as himself.

In an interview with the Associated Press in Des Moines, Obama said: "Her big answer on whether she would release the papers from her White House years was particularly troubling, because she is running on her record as first lady as much as on her record as a senator. How can people fully judge that record if the documents from those years remain locked away?"

In a piece of good news for her campaign yesterday, Clinton was endorsed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the nation's most politically active unions. The 1.4 million-member union represents about 30,000 workers in Iowa and expects to spend $5 million to $6 million in early primary states on Clinton's behalf. The endorsement helped counter the decision by another labor group, the Service Employees International Union chapter in early-voting New Hampshire, to line up with Edwards.

At the endorsement announcement, AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee presented Clinton with boxing gloves and highlighted the campaign's theme that Tuesday's debate was little more than a group of men ganging up on the front-runner. "Some of you may have seen last night's debate," he said. "Six guys against Hillary. I'd call that a fair fight."

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