WASHINGTON – Sen.
Hillary Clinton tried to rebound yesterday from an
uncharacteristic stumble in the Democratic presidential
debate Tuesday night when she seemed to take both sides on
the politically charged question of permitting illegal
immigrants to get driver's licenses in New York.
challenging her for her party's presidential nomination
and the Republicans who hope to oppose her next fall
pounced on what they saw as a misstep by the Democratic
front-runner, portraying her as unable to give a straight
answer on this and other issues.
The Clinton campaign issued a statement yesterday to
The New York Times indicating that the senator
supports New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's goal of giving a
special New York driver's license to illegal residents.
The statement stopped short of endorsing the specifics of
Spitzer's plan, which has grown more complicated as he has
tried to quiet a political firestorm over the three-tiered
The dispute arose in the final moments of a two-hour
session in Philadelphia that aired on MSNBC on Tuesday
night. Prodded by moderator Tim Russert, Clinton said
Spitzer's plan “makes a lot of sense. What is the governor
supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problem.”
Then she added: “Do I think this is the best thing for
any governor to do? No.”
Her answer was challenged by the two candidates who had
spent much of the night sharpening their attacks on the
“Unless I missed something,” said former North Carolina
Sen. John Edwards, “Sen. Clinton said two different things
in the course of about two minutes.”
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said: “I was confused on
Sen. Clinton's answer. I can't tell whether she was for it
or against it, and I do think that is important.”
Both candidates said they supported the plan at the
debate. Yesterday, they broadened their criticism,
suggesting Clinton has been vague on other topics such as
Iraq, Iran and Social Security.
“It looks like they may have found a vulnerability,”
said pollster John Zogby. “It's a legitimate question
The debate had featured some of the toughest attacks
yet on Clinton. But the driver's license question seemed
to crystallize that dynamic.
Clinton tried to move on yesterday, accepting an
important union endorsement from the American Federation
of State, County and Municipal Employees and casting the
debate as a case of all the other candidates trying to
bloody her. “The Politics of Pile-On” was how her Web site
Republicans were to join the pile.
On his Web site, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney
pasted a headline across a news release: “No Driver's
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani circulated an
excerpt from a television interview yesterday in which he
declared his opposition to the plan and mocked Clinton for
being evasive. Though he now advocates a crackdown on
illegal immigration, Giuliani recently has been on the
defensive for his past support of illegal immigrants'
Lou Dobbs, the CNN talk show host who has pursued a
long-running crusade against illegal immigration, declared
that Clinton “is in big trouble.”
Alan Abramowitz, an expert on electoral politics at
Emory University, said Clinton's handling of the issue
gave her opponents an opening.
“She could have handled it much better,” Abramowitz
said. “But instead she's gotten herself into the worst of
both worlds. How much long-term damage she's suffered
remains to be seen, but this gives Obama and Edwards an
Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University
of California San Diego, said he thought the damage would
be limited and not long-lasting because “her constituency
is not the Lou Dobbs crowd.”