Democratic Party presidential candidates faced off in Las Vegas Thursday, as Senator Hillary Clinton accused her rivals of distorting her record. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, the race is heating up in the weeks before the start of party caucuses and primary elections.

Senator Clinton leads the Democrats in national opinion polls, and has been the target of intense attacks from Illinois senator Barak Obama and former South Carolina senator John Edwards. Her rivals kept the pressure on in Las Vegas, accusing Clinton of switching positions on issues including Iraq, Iran, U.S. Social Security pensions, and the controversial domestic question of granting drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants. Obama called Clinton a capable politician who has run a good campaign, but says she is constantly switching positions.

"What the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions, and that is not what we have seen out of Senator Clinton on a host of issues," Obama said.

Senator Edwards, who was the Democratic Party's vice presidential candidate in 2004, has refused to take contributions from corporate lobbyists in this presidential campaign. He accused Clinton of defending a political system that he says is corrupt and broken, but he says he will bring change to Washington.

"Senator Clinton defends the system, takes money from lobbyists, does all those things, and my point is simply that people have - no, wait a minute - voters have those choices. Voters have those choices," said Edwards. "And they deserve to know that they have those choices, and that there are in fact differences between us. But I think every one of us should be held to the same standard."

Clinton accused her rivals of throwing mud and using tactics on their fellow Democrats that she said were taken from the Republican playbook.

Clinton also responded to critics who say she has used her gender to her advantage. She recently told students at her all-female alma mater, Wellesley College, that her education prepared her for what she called the "boys club" of politics. In the debate, she deflected the criticism.

"I'm not playing, as some people say, the gender card here in Las Vegas. I'm just trying to play the winning card. And I understand very well that people are not attacking me because I'm a woman," said Clinton. "They're attacking me because I'm ahead."

While Clinton leads in national polls, she faces a tough battle in the Iowa caucuses January 3. Clinton, Obama and Edwards are in a dead heat in state opinion polls.

The New Hampshire primary will follow a few days later. The Western state of Nevada, where Thursday's debate was held, will hold its party caucuses January 19.