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Democratic Rivals Pounce on Clinton at Debate

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The frontrunner in the Democratic race for president was pressed - politely -last night by her rivals in their latest televised debate. Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson were all encouraged to challenge Senator Hillary Clinton. And she did her best to avoid being pinned down on questions about Iran, Social Security and baseball.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: As the Democratic presidential nominating battle enters the fall season, Senator Clinton's position as the frontrunner has not been shaken, and her campaign has been working hard to create an aura of inevitability around her candidacy. Even her jumbo yard signs were designed to give the impression of dominance. The blue Hillary placards that lined the route to the Dartmouth College campus last night were three times the size of any other candidates. And Clinton herself was clearly a big target last night for her fellow Democrats and for the moderator of the debate, NBC's Tim Russert.

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (Moderator, "Meet the Press", NBC News): If, in fact, you made fundamental misjudgments on health care as first lady, and the war as senator, why shouldn't Democratic voters say she doesn't have the judgment to be president?

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): Well, Tim, I'm proud that I tried to get universal health care back in '93 and '94. It was a tough fight. It was kind of a lonely fight, but…

LIASSON: Senator Barack Obama faces a difficult challenge. He's raised more money than Clinton and draws consistently bigger crowds, but he hasn't been able to shrink her lead in the national polls. Last night, he did attack her, but only once, on health care.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): The issue is not going to be who has these particular plans, it has to do with who can inspire and mobilize the American people to get it done and open up the process. If it was lonely for Hillary, part of the reason it was lonely, Hillary, was because you closed the door to a lot of potential allies in that process.

LIASSON: At the invitation of Russert, Senator Joe Biden repeated a criticism he's made before that Clinton is too polarizing to create the bipartisan consensus needed to achieve universal health coverage.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): And in order to get health care, you're going to have to be able to persuade at least 15 percent of the Republicans to vote for it.

Mr. RUSSERT: And she cannot?

Sen. BIDEN: No, I think it's more difficult for Hillary. I think it's a reality that it's more difficult, because there's a lot of very good things that come with all the great things that President Clinton did. But there's also a lot of the old stuff that comes back. It's kind of hard.

LIASSON: Obama, Clinton and John Edwards have clashed in the past on the war in Iraq, but last night, they were all on the same page when asked to promise to have all U.S. troops out by the end of their first term as president. All three refused. The candidates were also pressed on how they'd keep Social Security solvent. Obama and Edwards said they'd consider raising the cap on payroll taxes; Clinton refused to discuss specifics. She also resisted this line of questioning about Iran's nuclear program.

Mr. RUSSERT: Would the Israelis be justified, if they felt their security was being threatened by the presence of a nuclear presence in Iran, and they decided to take military action? Would they be justified?

Sen. CLINTON: Well, Tim, I'm not going to answer that, because what I understand is if there…

Sen. BIDEN: I'll…

LIASSON: Russert tried again.

Mr. RUSSERT: Would you make a promise, as a potential commander in chief, that you will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power and will use any means to stop it?

Sen. CLINTON: Well, what I have said is that I will do everything I can to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, including the use of diplomacy, the use of economic sanctions, opening up direct talks.

LIASSON: She wouldn't even let herself be nailed down on baseball when tossed the admittedly very hypothetical question of a world series between the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs - her two favorite teams.

Sen. CLINTON: It would be so out of history that you have the Cubs versus the Yankees, then I'd be really in trouble. But I…

Mr. RUSSERT: But who would you be for?

Sen. CLINTON: Well, I would probably have to alternate sides.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: A lighthearted but typical response from a candidate who is carefully and cautiously protecting her lead.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Hanover, New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.