LAS VEGAS -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped down from her front-runner's pedestal and swung back at her Democratic rivals last night in a presidential debate that drew out differences over immigration, foreign policy and the proper tone of an increasingly harsh campaign.
The skirmishing started when Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois faintly praised Clinton as "a capable politician" who has run a "terrific campaign."
"But what the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions," Obama said. "And that is not what we've seen out of Senator Clinton on a host of issues."
After spending the first seven Democratic debates largely above the fray, the senator from New York fired back by suggesting that Obama had failed to take a strong stand in favor of universal health care.
"His plan would leave 15 million Americans out," she said, then ticked off several early voting states. "That's about the population of Nevada, Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire."
Obama disputed that. Then former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina chimed in to echo his criticism of Clinton: "She continues to defend a system that does not work, that is broken, that is rigged and corrupt."
Clinton struck back, harder. "I've just been personally attacked," she said. "I don't mind taking hits on my record on issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook.
"For him to be throwing this mud and making these charges I think really detracts from what we're trying to do here tonight," she said, to cheers from a rowdy audience. "We need to put forth a positive agenda for America."
Much of the debate, held at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and sponsored by CNN, played like a resumption of the conversation that began Oct. 30, the last time the Democratic candidates shared a stage.
Clinton entered having endured the roughest patch of her presidential run, which began after the last debate. Her answers to several questions that night fueled rivals' assertions that Clinton is over-calculating, and her problems increased when allies complained that Clinton's rivals and the debate moderator, NBC's Tim Russert, were unfairly piling on because of her gender, some said.
Asked whether she was playing the gender card to garner support and sympathy, Clinton said no. Asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer whether they disagreed, none of her opponents spoke up but Edwards, who did not answer directly but said there were legitimate differences to be explored.
"There's nothing personal about this," Edwards said. "Voters are entitled to know what those differences are, without it being personal."
He reiterated his assertion that Clinton is part of a broken political system, then spoke over boos to complete his sentence. "No, wait a minute," he said. "Voters have those choices and they deserve to know that they have those choices and that there are in fact differences between us."
One issue that carried over involved the granting of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. This time, however, the discussion played out in reverse order.
Clinton stumbled the last time when asked whether she supported New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer's since-abandoned plan to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants. Her imprecise response spawned days of campaign back-and-forth, particularly from Obama's campaign. This time Obama seemed unable to come up with a clear answer when asked whether he would support such a policy.
Obama later doubled back on another issue from the previous debate, Social Security, and delivered one of the sharpest jabs. He reiterated his support for a plan that would boost taxes on Americans making more than $97,500 a year. Clinton repeated her claim that that would amount to a $1 trillion tax on middle-income Americans and seniors.
In contrast with earlier forums, the war in Iraq didn't play a significant part until about 45 minutes into the debate, when the candidates were asked whether they thought the Bush administration's "surge" policy was working.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, who have made withdrawing the troops linchpins to their campaigns, said it had not.
Mark Z. Barabak and Scott Martelle write for the Los Angeles Times.