The leading Democratic presidential contender, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, is getting more aggressive in countering attacks from her rivals for the party nomination.  VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more on the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign from Washington.

In the latest Democratic debate broadcast by CNN, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois said voters want straight answers to tough questions, something he said Hillary Clinton has failed to do.

Another rival, former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, said Democrats looking for a candidate to bring change to Washington should not consider Senator Clinton.

"She says she will bring change while she continues to defend a system that does not work, that is rigged and is corrupt," he said.

But this time, Clinton fired back.  She questioned Obama's proposal for health care reform and accused Edwards of mounting the type of attack that Republicans have employed against her.

"We are Democrats, and we are trying to nominate the very best person we can to win, and I do not mind taking hits on my record and issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope it is accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook," she said.

But her Democratic challengers are not backing away from a more confrontational approach to Clinton, who continues to lead the national polls in the race for the party's nomination.

Obama had this response to Clinton when she criticized his reform plan for the Social Security pension system.

"This is the kind of thing I would expect from Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani, where we start playing with numbers in order to try to make a point," he said.

Political analysts expect the clashes among Democrats to become even more intense as the party primaries draw near.  Iowa will begin the presidential selection process January 3 for both major parties, and at the moment Clinton, Obama and Edwards are engaged in a tight three-way battle among the Democrats.

Larry Sabato directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"This is now a real race, and that is why this debate, I think, is not going to have any major impact long term.  I think it is a real race in Iowa," he noted.

Most experts continue to regard Clinton as the clear frontrunner for the Democratic Party nomination.  They also believe the best chance for her rivals to stop her may be with an early upset victory in Iowa.

Steffen Schmidt is a professor of political science at Iowa State University.

Schmidt says voters there are debating whether Hillary Clinton would be the strongest Democratic candidate in next year's election.

"Her negatives are very high, and so even though she is doing incredibly well, a lot of Democrats are saying, yes, but can she beat a Republican?  And so in Iowa, if there is any doubt about her invincibility, it will at least allow for another discussion among Democrats before they go and vote in the primaries about this," he explained.

While the Democratic race seems to be getting more attention of late, there is also a furious battle underway for the Republican Party's presidential nomination.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani continues to hold a lead in national polls.  But former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney leads among Republican voters in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire.