MANCHESTER, N.H.--About 45 minutes into last night's Democratic presidential candidates' debate, Sen. Hillary Clinton, standing between her two top rivals, leaned back, smiled, and watched as they duked it out over healthcare proposals.
The back and forth between Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards at center stage on the campus of St. Anselm College wasn't the most riveting exchange in an evening dominated by discussion of the Iraq war, but politically the moment was perhaps the most telling.
As Clinton's lead in national presidential preference polls of Democratic voters continues to widen, Obama and Edwards have sharpened their rhetoric, while the Clinton campaign strategy to keep her above the fray as the presumptive nominee played out almost seamlessly last night. (Clinton insisted that the differences among Democrats are minor, that it's only with the Republicans that disagreements run deep.)
Edwards, third in national preference polls but leading in the early caucus state of Iowa, took exception--particularly on the issue of Iraq. He aggressively called into question Clinton's honesty for failing to apologize, as he has, for voting to authorize the Iraq war, and he criticized both Clinton and Obama for their late support of a recent bill that would have cut off Iraq war funding.
Obama, whose strong performance last night largely erased his less-than-stellar outing in the first Democratic debate, was clearly prepared: "And I think, John ... the fact is, is that I opposed this war from the start. So you're about four and one-half years late on leadership on this issue."
How long Clinton can stay out of the emerging rough-and-tumble remains to be seen, particularly with Edwards pushing their differences and threatening a formidable showing in early caucus and primary tests next year.
But her advisers were clearly relishing the fresh Obama-Edwards rivalry. "It's interesting to see the other two start to swing at each other," said Mark Penn, a Clinton adviser and pollster who also worked for her husband, former President Bill Clinton. "It's a fight over who's going to beNo. 2."
Jonathan Prince, Edwards's deputy campaign manager and also a former Bill Clinton adviser, dismissed Penn's assessment as "just silly."
By Liz Halloran