Senator Hillary Clinton of New York was the main target at the latest debate among Democratic presidential contenders held in Philadelphia. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports Clinton's rivals went after her on her stance on Iran, the war in Iraq, and whether she would be the best candidate to defeat the Republicans in next year's presidential election.
The debate was broadcast on MSNBC television and provided an opportunity for Hillary Clinton's Democratic rivals to cut into her formidable lead in national public opinion polls.
Among the targets was Clinton's recent vote in favor of a non-binding Senate resolution urging the Bush administration to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a foreign terrorist organization.
Some Democrats, including former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, saw the Senate vote as moving the United States closer to war with Iran.
"In fact, she voted to give George Bush the first step in moving militarily on Iran, and he has taken it," said Edwards.
Another contender, Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, opposed the Senate resolution on Iran. Dodd noted that Clinton initially supported the war in Iraq even though she now favors a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"I believe that this [Iran] issue is going to come back to haunt us. What you did not learn in 2002 you should have learned by now," said Dodd.
On the defensive for much of the debate, Clinton said she favors a tough but fair diplomatic approach to Iran.
"I prefer vigorous diplomacy, and I happen to think that economic sanctions are part of vigorous diplomacy," said Clinton. "We are not, in my view, rushing to war. We should not be doing that. But we should not be doing nothing."
Clinton's rivals also questioned her commitment to quickly bring U.S. troops home from Iraq.
Senator Barack Obama of Illinois says at times Clinton sounds too much like a Republican.
"She voted for a war, to authorize sending troops into Iraq, and then later said this was a war for diplomacy," said Obama. "Now, that may be politically savvy, but I do not think it offers the clear contrast that we need."
Obama, Edwards and Dodd also questioned Clinton's electability, noting public opinion polls that indicate the public is about evenly split between those who like her and those who do not.
Clinton said she believes she would be the strongest Democrat to run for the White House next year, against any of the potential Republican presidential nominees.
"I have been standing against the Republicans, George Bush and Dick Cheney, and I will continue to do so, and I think Democrats know that," she added.
With about two months to go before the first votes of the primary process in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton's rivals are stepping up their attacks .
A new nationwide poll shows Clinton slipping a bit in a possible race with the Republican frontrunner, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The poll, conducted by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, shows Giuliani with a narrow 45-to-43 percent lead over Clinton in a projected general election match-up. Clinton led Giuliani by three points in the same poll in August.
Maurice Carroll directs the polling institute at Quinnipiac. He says Clinton's Democratic rivals, especially Edwards and Obama, are becoming more aggressive as the primary season draws near.
"[They] went after Mrs. Clinton with hammer and tongs [aggressively], and she was the target, which would indicate that the poll numbers showing her way ahead are accurate. The two who are following her are zeroing in on her," said Carroll.
Clinton continues to hold a big lead in national polls over her Democratic rivals. But her lead in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire is much smaller, especially in Iowa, which kicks off the nominee selection process for both parties with its caucus voting on January 3.