A new assessment by the nation's intelligence community that says Iran halted its covert nuclear weapons program in 2003 provided fresh ammunition Tuesday for Democratic presidential candidates seeking to portray Sen. Hillary Clinton as too hawkish on Iran.
In an Iowa radio debate hosted by NPR News Tuesday afternoon, several of the candidates sharply criticized Clinton's September vote to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization as misguided, and characterized it as part of the Bush Administration's efforts at saber-rattling in the Persian Gulf.
"Among the Democratic candidates there's only one who voted for this resolution. And this is exactly what Bush and Cheney wanted," said former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
The non-binding resolution, known as the Kyl-Lieberman bill, passed 76-22, with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama skipping the vote.
Clinton rejected the notion Tuesday that she had encouraged a rush to war with Iran, and said her opponents were rewriting their own records on Iran, pointing to earlier statements by Edwards and Obama about the threat posed by Tehran.
"There was a very broadly based belief that they were pursuing a nuclear weapon," Clinton said of the Iranians. She dismissed the idea that she sided with the Bush Administration on Iran as a campaign ploy.
"I understand politics and I understand making outlandish political charges, but this really goes way too far.
Obama accused Clinton of misrepresenting his record, and stressed his advocacy for unconditional talks with the government in Tehran, a position that earned Clinton's scorn at an earlier Democratic debate.
"What I've been consistent about was that this saber-rattling was a repetition of Iraq, a war I opposed, and that we needed to oppose George Bush again," Obama said. "We can't keep on giving him the benefit of the doubt, knowing the ways in which the manipulate intelligence."
Analysts predicted that the new intelligence report could become a fresh headache for a Clinton campaign that has lost some altitude in recent days as new polls out of Iowa show Obama pulling ahead in that critical early voting state.
"I think in general it reinforces people who have been talking about diplomacy first," said California-based Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick. "I think Senator Clinton has a particular vulnerability because she has voted for the Iran resolution."
Iowa caucus voters are very sophisticated and pay attention to foreign policy issues like Iran, Carrick said, and they are not likely to ignore this week's developments.
However others cautioned against overplaying the significance of the Iran report to the presidential campaign, saying that while the NIE has set the Beltway on fire in the past 24 hours, there are other issues -- such as health care and the economy -- that are more pressing for American voters. It is those bread and butter issues that will help shape the dynamic of the campaign in the month before the Iowa Caucuses.
"If Hillary is floundering, it is not because of her foreign policy record," said Washington DC-based media consultant Jim Duffy.
Duffy and Carrick said that the ultimate damage the NIE does to the Clinton campaign will be determined by how seriously Obama and Edwards want to press the issue. If they move on the Iran report becomes a "below the radar" issue, both men agreed.