Clad in her “asbestos pantsuit” at yesterday’s Dem debate in Las Vegas, Sen. Hillary Clinton (NY) showed the media – who heaped scorn on her for coming down with the vapors over being engaged and attacked by her opponents – that she could dish it out and take it. What she didn’t show the voters was that she could answer a question directly and forthrightly (this time, she had trouble getting her position on NAFTA straight).

Right off the bat, Hillary evaded CNN reporter Campbell Brown’s question about “your opponents are saying that … you often avoid taking firm positions on controversial issues” (in this case, illegal immigration):

[T]he American people know where I’ve stood for 35 years. I’ve been fighting for issues affecting women and children, workers and families. I’ve been fighting for universal health care.

Yes, but Brown did not ask that. She asked whether you you’re a poll-driven panderer. Sen. Barack Obama (IL) wasted no time in calling Hillary out:

[W]hat the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions. And that is not what we’ve seen out of Senator Clinton on a host of issues, on the issue of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. We saw in the last debate that it took not just that debate but two more weeks before we could get a clear answer in terms of where her position was.

Hillary came back swinging:

[H]e talks a lot about stepping up and taking responsibility and taking strong positions. 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. … The Republicans are not going to vacate the White House voluntarily. We have some big issues ahead of us, and we need someone who is tested and ready to lead. I think that’s what my candidacy offers. [Judging by the cheers and applause here and at other points during the debate whenever she landed a punch, this was Hillary’s crowd – even though Gov. Bill Richardson should have had the hometown advantage. He just can’t seem to capitalize on the few opportunities he gets to speak as Republican Mike Huckabee has.]

Moderator Wolf Blitzer gave Fmr. Sen John Edwards (NC) his crack at Hillary, and he chose to focus on her record on the Iraq War, as well as her personal integrity – unwisely, as it turned out:

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. 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. … [S]he 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, corrupted against the interest of most Americans and corrupted.

Hillary hit back without missing a beat (also without addressing any of Edwards’ charges directly):

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 because what I … [the crowd goes wild] believe is important is that we put forth what we stand for. … [F]or 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 crowd goes wild again].

Given their chance to jump into the fray, Sen. Joe Biden (DE), Sen. Christopher Dodd (CT) and Richardson (NV) all demurred. Ever supportive of Hillary, Richardson also implored the other candidates, “[L]et’s stop this mud slinging. Let’s stop this going after each other on character, on trust.”

Ironically, when Blitzer went down the line asking the candidates whether they supported giving drivers’ licenses to forged documented aliens, Obama gave exactly the kind of answer that he had opened the debate slamming Hillary for – causing Blitzer to dryly remark: ” … this is the kind of question that is sort of available for a yes or no answer. Either you support it or you oppose it.”

One by one, the candidates refused to give a yes or no answer. Only Biden and Hillary flat out said, “No.” That’s it – just “no.” In Biden’s case, it was personal conviction; in Hillary’s case, it was a Pavlovian conditioning. Having been punished in the first debate, she had learned exactly what to say this time around.

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog.

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