HANOVER, N.H. -- After months of mild-mannered Democratic debates, the field of candidates finally launched an aggressive charge against front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York last night, pointedly critiquing her track record on everything from the war in Iraq to her efforts to reform health care.
In an intense two-hour debate moderated by Tim Russert of NBC News, the candidates fleshed out key foreign policy positions on which they have declined to give specifics during past debates.
Pressed for details on how they would end the war in Iraq, for example, the leading candidates refused to pledge that they would withdraw all American troops by the end of the next White House term.
And while they espoused support for Israel, the Democratic candidates declined to state affirmatively that the Israeli government would be justified in launching a military attack if its leaders felt their nation's security was being threatened by the presence of nuclear power in Iran.
By the end of the faceoff at Dartmouth College, Clinton had worked to fend off several points of criticism from most of the field, notably from Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
This was the sharp-edged confrontation that analysts have been expecting for weeks, and it came on the heels of a new poll suggesting that Clinton has widened her lead over the field in New Hampshire. The latest CNN/WMUR poll says Clinton is favored by 43 percent of the state's likely Democratic voters while her closest challenger, Obama, is favored by 20 percent.
The candidates are also clearly feeling the heat of the season as the third quarter of fundraising draws to a close and the campaigns prepare to focus more intently on directly courting voters. The candidates' schedules for the coming days are lighter on high-stakes fundraising trips and heavier on appointments with voters in the early voting states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.
Edwards, who placed third in the New Hampshire poll with 12 percent, led the charge against Clinton, starting with the assertion that she supports "a continuation of the war" because she says combat missions might be necessary for counterterrorism purposes.
Other rivals raised the criticism that Clinton would be hindered as a candidate or president by a deep animosity toward her among conservatives.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware said it would be harder for a Clinton White House to achieve health care reform because hostility toward her among Republicans would make it difficult to win the GOP votes she would need to move legislation through Congress.
"They feed on this Clinton-Bush thing," Biden said. "I'm not suggesting it's her fault; it's the reality."
Biden added that, for all the achievements of her husband's administration, the Clinton name inevitably dredged up "old stuff."
Pausing while some viewers might have thought of the Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater scandals, Biden held up his hand and insisted, "When I say 'the old stuff,' I'm referring to policy, policy."
Obama joined in, arguing that part of the reason that the Clinton administration's health care reform initiative in the 1990s failed was because of her high-handed approach. In doing so, he seized on her words that she was "lonely" as one of those at the forefront pushing for universal health care.
"If it was lonely for Hillary, part of the reason was that she closed the door to a lot of potential allies in that process," he said.
Clinton sidestepped a question from Russert on whether her failure to pass health care legislation and her vote in favor of authorizing the Iraq war should lead Democratic voters to conclude that she "doesn't have the judgment to be president."
"My experience on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue," Clinton responded, has shown "how challenging it will be to take on the special interests" and "gives me a special insight into what we will have to do."
Among Clinton, Obama and Edwards, none was willing to pledge that all combat forces in Iraq would be gone by the end of the next president's term in 2013.
"It's hard to project four years from now," Obama said.
"It is very difficult to know what we're going to be inheriting," Clinton said.
"I cannot make that commitment," said Edwards.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut resolutely answered the question "yes." Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico reiterated his commitment to withdrawing troops within a year of taking office, leaving light equipment behind in his haste.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio pledged to have troops out by spring of 2009. Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel said he thinks the other candidates who are members of Congress should suspend their campaigns, go to Washington and demand daily votes to end the war in Iraq.
Christi Parsons and Mike Dorning write for the Chicago Tribune.