"The differences among us are minor, the differences between us and Republicans are major," Hillary Clinton declared during Sunday night's Democratic debate in Manchester, New Hampshire. Though any debate this early is unlikely to affect the outcome of the election, the second Democratic showdown provided a glimpse into Hillary's biggest vulnerability in the primary.
The declaration was a continuation of Hillary's so-called strategy of "muddying the waters" on the Iraq issue to make it appear that her position is, practically speaking, no different from those of her rivals. The strategy has included deploying Bill Clinton to criticize the press for portraying her as less anti-war than other leading Democrats and to argue that her vote to authorize the war wasn't the same as voting for the war.
Last night's debate became especially contentious when Edwards blasted his rivals for not being more outspoken before voting against the supplemental funding bill. "They went quietly to the floor of the Senate, cast the right vote, but there is a difference between leadership and legislating," Edwards said. At the prodding of CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer, Edwards singled out Clinton and Barack Obama.
In a response that was uncharacteristically gruff, Obama fired back with his ultimate trump card: "John, the fact is, is that I opposed this war from the start. So you are about four and a half years late on leadership on this issue."
But Hillary's only recourse was to change the subject. "I think it's important particularly to point out, this is George Bush's war -- he is responsible for this war," she said. "He started the war. He mismanaged the war. He escalated the war. And he refuses to end the war."
The fact that Obama's public statements in opposition to the Iraq War in 2002 will continue to pay him dividends and that Clinton's refusal to apologize for her vote to authorize the war will continue to cause her grief was made evident by Edwards' response. He gave Obama credit for being opposed to the war all along. "You were right, I was wrong," he said to Obama. But Edwards then implicitly criticized Clinton by saying that candidates needed to be honest and upfront with the country about their positions on the war.
Edwards may be forced to back off Obama as the campaign goes on. However, he has an interest in continuing to press Clinton to be contrite about her war vote. Given his own vote for the war, it's the only way for Edwards to differentiate himself from her.
This will present problems for Clinton on more than one level. Beyond having to defend a vote that is highly unpopular among the Democratic base, her parsing of the issue will reinforce the image of her as a fake, calculating, politician -- an image that is the root of her high negativity ratings.
She may still be the frontrunner in the polls, but Hillary Clinton's vulnerability on the single most important issue to Democratic primary voters represents a fundamental problem in her bid for the party's nomination.
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