Starting Gate: Clinton Calls – And Raises -- In Vegas Debate

New York Senator Hillary Clinton went a long way toward regaining her political footing in last night's Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas. In an exchange that was once again focused on the front-runner from the opening gun, Clinton for the first time engaged her opponents and defused much of the criticism they've aimed at her in recent weeks.

Declaring that she had on her "asbestos" pantsuit, Clinton also demonstrated that she could pack a little heat of her own. She dealt with the first question of the evening, about the recent shots taken at her candidacy by saying, "I'm perfectly comfortable leaving these assessments up to the American people to make their judgments among us."

But when Barack Obama followed by asserting that she has not been delivering "straight answers to tough questions," Clinton shot back. Obama "talks a lot about stepping up and taking responsibility and taking strong positions," she said. "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." In the back-and-forth that followed the candidates argued about their health care plans, a rarity for Clinton, who has up until now sought to stay far above such frays.

Next up was John Edwards, who hit Clinton on a variety of fronts, accusing her of trying to be on all sides of important issues and of defending a "rigged" and "corrupt" system. "I don't mind taking hits on my record on issues," Clinton retorted, "but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both accurate and right out of the Republican playbook."

In those opening minutes, Clinton seemed to disarm her two toughest Democratic opponents – or at least knock them off balance. While both continued to try and chip away at Clinton for the rest of the debate, neither had as much success as they did in the last debate, where the front-runner stumbled several times. Twice when Edwards appeared to be inching toward criticizing Clinton, he was met with a smattering of boos from the audience.

And Barack Obama turned what should have been an easy question into a tortured discourse on immigration policy. It was Clinton, in the last debate, who appeared to both support and oppose a proposal to provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Given that the issue has been a major topic of discussion for the past ten days, it would seem likely that the candidates would be prepared. But when asked whether he would support or oppose the idea, Obama said he would support it then launched into a lengthy discussion of comprehensive immigration until CNN's Wolf Blitzer, the debate's moderator, said, "this is the kind of question that is sort of available for a yes or no answer." When Clinton was asked, she simply said, "no."

While Obama and Edwards struck familiar themes and sought to differentiate themselves from Clinton on issues ranging from Iran to Social Security, they were unable to maintain the offensive they had coming in. Save the early exchanges, and a couple minor scrapes along the way, Clinton kept most of her criticisms aimed at President Bush and once again made the argument that she's the most experienced candidate. It was solid performance following a period of time that saw her slip a bit from her front-runner's perch. When asked about allegations that her campaign has played the "gender card" to gain sympathy, Clinton disagreed. "I'm not playing the gender card," she said, "I'm trying to play the winning card."

Joe Biden and Chris Dodd turned in solid, impressive performances. Biden, who has grown into the role as the respected elder statesman and part-time comedic relief, showed his chops of foreign affairs matters, particularly on the issue of the unrest in Pakistan. Dodd waxed eloquently and knowledgably on education and trotted out his impressive grasp of the Spanish language. For all the attention on the three big candidates, Biden nearly stole the show, with Dodd not too far behind. Bill Richardson, who is fourth in most polls, pressed his message of total withdrawal in Iraq but again didn't jump out of the crowd.

But this remains a three-way race by all measures and the red-hot start to this debate showed that starkly. Outside of Clinton, Obama and Edwards, no other candidate spoke for nearly the first 30 minutes of the debate. And, like the last debate, there was something new in play – Clinton's willingness to directly engage her foes. For the night, at least, she got the upper hand. Editor's Note: This post has been updated

Tending The "Plants: In the debate last night Edwards jokingly asked whether one of moderator Wolf Blitzer's questions was "a plant" -- a reference to the controversy that erupted last week over the revelation that Hillary Clinton's campaign had planted the audiences at her events with questions she would be prepared to answer, sometimes over the objections of the people asking the questions.

It probably won't be the last time Edwards makes the joke. His campaign is behind a new Web site, Plants for Hillary, complete with "endorsements" from people with actual plants for heads. One, named Pogonatherum paniceum says, "I work a lot with seedlings who are concerned about global warming. But Hillary's staffers told me that wasn't in the script. So I wilted and asked one of the questions they had listed in their book."

The botanical puns, for better or worse, don't stop there, and the site also includes a "field guide" to spotting a Hillary plant, the top 10 questions plants should never ask Clinton (like "How can you change Washington when you keep defending a broken system?"). Visitors are also able to submit their own planted questions and the site promises the chance to buy t-shirts claiming "Questions are hard... so plant them."

In a release promoting the site, the Edwards campaign says the site is a "grassroots" effort that will "bear fruit" know, just in case you still don't get the joke.

Testing The Message, Skirting The Line: The AP reports that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have been getting calls raising the issue of Mitt Romney's religion. Residents of the two early states report being asked if they are aware Romney is a Mormon, if they knew that he had received a deferment while serving as a Mormon missionary and that Mormons did not accept blacks until the 1970s.

The calls were traced to a firm in Utah, Western Watts, which denies conducting "push polls" – calls disguised as polling surveys which are designed to disseminate negative messages about a candidate. Western Watts has worked in the past with GOP pollster Ed Goes, who is currently working for Rudy Giuliani but Goes vehemently denies any connection to the Romney calls.

Around The Track

  • CNN host Lou Dobbs has turned into quite a crusader on the issues of immigration and trade and now might be thinking about a presidential bid, according to the Wall Street Journal's John Fund who reports that Dobbs may indeed be considering running as an independent candidate. Fund writes: "Don't be surprised if you hear more rumors about a Dobbs candidacy. Even if he doesn't enter the race, any such discussion would serve to boost his ratings."
  • Another poll shows Mike Huckabee climbing in Iowa. The ARG poll has Romney leading the former Arkansas governor by just two points, 26 percent to 24 percent.
  • Karl Rove is surprised by Rudy Giuliani's staying power in the GOP contest and impressed by Romney's campaign.
  • Dodd has closed his Nevada headquarters as he focuses nearly all attention on Iowa.