LAS VEGAS-- Thursday's Democratic debate came roaring out of the box with the top three contenders verbally pounding each other like at no other moment so far in the '08 campaign.
After showing weakness in the previous debate in Philadelphia two weeks ago, Senator Hillary Clinton seemed well-prepared for what she knew would be a rhetorical pummeling from her closest rivals, Barack Obama and John Edwards. She defended herself by going on a strong counter-offensive, radically ratcheting up the overall temperature of the debate.
Within moments of the start of the two hour event televised nationally from the campus of UNLV, Senator Obama launched an initial barrage by accusing Hillary Clinton of being purposely evasive. "What the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions," Obama said. "And that is not what we've seen out of Senator Clinton on a host of issues."
No sooner had Obama finished his sentence than did Clinton, for the first time in the campaign, go vigorously on the counter-attack. " I hear what Senator Obama is saying, and he talks a lot about stepping up and taking responsibility and taking strong positions," said the visibly angry Clinton. "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. His plan would leave 15 million Americans out."
Clinton and Obama then proceeded to verbally spar over the health care issue with the latter claiming that the issue as he sees it isn't forcing a coverage mandate on the American people as his rival proposes, but rather by making health care more affordable.
The debate atmosphere grew even hotter as the third-running John Edwards joined the attack on Hillary Clinton by attacking her position on the Iraq war which she -- as Edwards--had voted to authorize in 2002. Since then, Edwards has formally recanted his vote and continues to chide Clinton for not more forcefully opposing current policy. "Senator Clinton says she will end the war. She also says she will continue to keep combat troops in Iraq and continue combat missions in Iraq," Edwards said. "She says she will turn up the heat on George Bush and the Republicans, but when the crucial vote came on stopping Bush, Cheney and the neocons, on Iran, she voted with Bush and Cheney."
Clinton quickly turned the charge around by interrupting moderator Wolf Blitzer and accusing Edwards of "throwing mud" and of taking a page out of "the Republican playbook."
Indeed, the first fifteen minutes of the debate played out like a three-way no-holds-barred wrestling match that the CNN referees struggled to control. Only the entrance into fray by second tier candidates Joe Biden , Chris Dodd, and Bill Richardson - all of them pleading for calm--brought a more moderate tone to the verbal brawl.
But even New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson quickly returned to a more aggressive stance, attacking Edwards, Obama and Clinton all in one sentence saying that it "seems like John wants a class war, Barack wants a generational war, and Senator Clinton doesn't want to end the war."
The free-for-all atmosphere reflected the struggle to firm up or advance the candidates' relative positions just seven weeks short of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. Recent polls show Hillary Clinton with a double-digit national lead, though she's running in a virtual dead heat with Obama in Iowa. After getting tripped up on the immigration issue during the Philadelphia debate on October 30, Clinton's momentum seemed to slow and her rivals went into tonight's debate hoping to exploit a possible opening.
More sparks flew during the debate on issues of immigration, trade and U.S. policy toward Iran but not with the intensity that infused the first rounds of the debate. No new ground was broken on these issues where the actual positions of the respective candidates vary by only minor degrees.
Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who has staked out the left flank of the field, accused all of his fellow candidates of waffling on key issues. "You see here people tonight who voted for the war now have a different position, people who voted for Yucca mountain and and now have a different position, people who voted for China trade and who now have a different position.," Kucinich said. He also called for "impeachment now" of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
In an ironic twist, it was Obama who struggled with the immigration question during this debate, the same one over which Clinton stumbled on two weeks ago. When asked for a simple yes or no answer on whether he supported the granting of driver licenses to the undocumented, Obama offered an indirect and rambling explanation and only said "yes" after being prodded by the moderator.
During the first fiery ten minutes of the debate, Obama showed a heated passion and determination to challenge the front-runner. But as Clinton steadily shot back at hi, Obama seemed to cool and never regained the dramatic edge he might have initially achieved.
The same can be said for candidate Edwards. He came out bashing Clinton as supporting a political system he called "rigged" and "corrupt" but after her accusation of mud-slinging, the former North Carolina seemed to recede into the background of the debate.