The Democratic presidential candidates debate at Drexel University may have represented the best opportunity for rivals to derail — or, at least, slow down — what appears to be the Hillary Clinton runaway express.
Both U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards gave it a shot: taking their swipes at what they described as the New York senator's failure to clearly state her positions on issues like Social Security reform and, most especially, on how the United States should proceed on Iran.
Edwards proclaimed that Clinton says that she will "stand up" to President George Bush on Iran. "In fact," he continued, "she voted to give George Bush the first step in moving militarily on Iran — and he's taking it."
While much of the pre-debate attention was focused on Obama, many pundits felt that Edwards offered the most pointed and sustained critique of the former first lady.
"We need to make it absolutely clear," he said, "that we have no intention of letting Bush, [Vice President Dick] Cheney or this administration invade Iran, because they have been rattling the saber over and over."
Edwards was referring to the U.S. Senate's Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which labels Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. While 76 senators backed the measure, Clinton was the only Democratic presidential candidate in the senate who voted in favor of it.
Clinton denied that her vote authorized the president to use force against Iran.
"I am not in favor of this rush for war, but I'm also not in favor of doing nothing," she said. "I prefer vigorous diplomacy. And I happen to think economic sanctions are part of vigorous diplomacy."
When asked by MSNBC moderator Tim Russert if she would work to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb during her administration, should she get elected, Clinton replied that she would do "everything I can."
Edwards said that he would "take all the responsible steps that can be taken." Obama sounded a similar note.
U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) said that focusing on Iran has deflected American attention from nearby Pakistan, which already has nuclear weapons and is in the midst of a political crisis.
"If, by attacking Iran to stop them from getting 2.6 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, the government in Pakistan falls — who has missiles already deployed with nuclear weapons on them that can already reach Israel, already reach India — then that's a bad bargain," said Biden.
In The New York Times prior to the debate, Obama promised to step up his criticism of the front-runner. While he started the year virtually neck-and-neck with Clinton, he's now trailing 21 percent to her 47 percent, according to the latest Quinnipiac University Poll. (On www. open-vote. com, he is the top choice among Drexel's student body.)
When asked to criticize Clinton's record, Obama initially deflected the question and played to the home crowd, saying the contest was perhaps "the most hyped fight since Rocky fought Apollo Creed."
Obama then accused Clinton of "changing positions whenever it's politically convenient."
Later, Clinton was asked about a controversial plan by Gov. Elliot Spitzer (D-N.Y.) to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. She has reportedly been quoted as saying that the idea "makes sense"; at the debate, however, she would not go on the record as supporting the prospect.
Opponents cited that as an example of Clinton hedging her bets on an issue.
Throughout the night, Clinton repeatedly fired back at her opponents for criticisms of being wishy-washy.
"In the Senate," she attested, "I've been standing up against the Republicans on everything from privatizing Social Security to standing up against President Bush's veto of children's health care. In a perverse way, I think that the Republicans and their constant obsession with me demonstrate clearly that they obviously think that I am communicating effectively about what I will do as president."
Edwards replied that it meant the opposite: The Republicans are focusing on Clinton because they think that they can beat her.
The extent to which Edwards or Obama made any headway may not be clear until Jan. 3, the date of the Iowa caucuses.
"Ultimately, the most important people watching this aren't in Philadelphia, they are in Des Moines, Iowa, or Waterloo, Iowa," said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, in a talk he gave on campus earlier in the day.
Forman said that if Clinton wins in Iowa — where, unlike the rest of the country, she faces a stiff challenge from both Edwards and Obama — she'd likely capture the nomination.
At least for a day, Drexel — not known as a hotbed of activism — was awash with political fervor. Nearly everywhere, candidate supporters brandished signs. In the evening, students packed the main quad to watch the open-air taping of MSNBC's Hardball With Chris Matthews.
An organization called "Act Up Philadelphia" staged a protest that drew about 300 people, many of whom were living with HIV. They called for universal health care and bemoaned the fact that candidates don't seem to support such an overhaul. Some marchers added a bit of Halloween to the proceedings, dressing as "the living dead" — symbolizing those without health insurance.
Ari Winkleman, 18 and from Westchester County in New York, was one of a lucky 98 students whose names were chosen from a list of more than 3,000, and thus received a ticket to the debate.
"I never win anything," said Winkleman, who said that the experience made him want to get more involved with politics. He plans to vote in his very first election via absentee ballot in the New York primary.