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It could be a long two months for Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton if she continues to sidestep questions on big issues.
With just seven weeks to go until the leadoff Iowa caucuses, the New York senator has become the target for her Democratic rivals, especially Barack Obama and John Edwards, who are openly questioning her candor, integrity and electability.
Clinton has fought back using a classic front-runner’s playbook, trying to avoid direct confrontations with the other Democrats while taking her fight to Republicans, especially President Bush.
But by avoiding questions on important issues — from Social Security overhaul to driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants — Clinton risks playing into a narrative her rivals are eager to establish: that she is slippery, evasive and overly political.
“Whether it’s accurate or not, people have this sense that she has an ‘ends justify means’ approach to being accurate and consistent,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Iowa’s Drake University. “That’s her vulnerability, and it’s where Edwards and Obama will go nuclear eventually.”
It may happen sooner rather than later. On Wednesday, Obama contended that Clinton’s performance in a televised forum Tuesday night showed she was not willing to give straight answers.
“I think last night’s debate really exposed this fault line,” Obama told The Associated Press. “Senator Clinton left us wondering where she stood on every single hard question from Iran to Social Security to driver’s licenses for undocumented workers.”
For its part, the Clinton campaign sent a memo to reporters asking: “What happens when the ‘politics of pile-on’ replaces the ‘politics of hope?'”
Here are some of the issues in question:
• Driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants: In the debate, Clinton hedged on whether she supports a plan offered by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer to grant licenses to illegal immigrants. Foes of the idea are in an uproar, though eight other states, including conservative Utah, already allow undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses.
At first, Clinton appeared to praise the plan. “What Governor Spitzer is trying to do is fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform,” she said.
Pressed later on the matter, she seemed to backtrack.
“I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it,” she said — a verbal contortion her opponents eagerly seized.
Clinton later called it a “gotcha” question. But her advisers acknowledge she seemed unprepared for it, even though it’s been a major point of contention recently in her home state.
Taylor Moran of the National Immigration Law Center said that while Clinton “may have waffled a bit,” the crux of her answer reflected the reality that states face.
“Everyone in this country recognizes our immigration system is broken,” Moran said. “Without reforms, what is a governor supposed to do with a large undocumented population in his state?”
Obama said he supported granting licenses to undocumented workers, while rival Chris Dodd said he opposed the idea.
• Social Security: Beyond committing herself to “fiscal responsibility” if she is elected president, Clinton has publicly refused to say how she would keep the Social Security system solvent. Obama and Edwards have said they would raise the level of income subject to the tax, currently about $97,500 per year.
Clinton has said she doesn’t want to raise the payroll taxes, raise the eligibility age or privatize the system, and she recently began airing a television ad in Iowa pledging to protect the program. She also says she’d favor a bipartisan commission to study the problem and offer solutions — something Obama and Edwards have also advocated.
But an Associated Press reporter overheard Clinton privately tell an Iowa voter that while she didn’t want to put an additional tax burden on the middle class, she’d consider a “gap,” with no Social Security taxes on income from $97,500 to around $200,000. Anything above that could be taxed.
Edwards also supports such a gap, while Obama said he believes the current cap should be lifted from its current level.
Asked in Tuesday’s debate about a public-private contradiction, Clinton said she wasn’t advocating a tax increase but would simply consider it.
“Everybody knows what the possibilities are,” she said. “But I do not advocate it. I do not support it.”
Clinton advisers stand by her approach to the topic, arguing that Social Security is too complex a problem to solve in a one-minute debate answer.
Goldford said Clinton was “trying to have it both ways” on Social Security. He said she should simply acknowledge she doesn’t yet have the answer to the problem.
“She’s got to find a way of saying, ‘We will safeguard the Social Security system. We don’t know how to do it, but we’ve got to do it.’ Stop focusing on the means and focus on the goal,” he said.
• Clinton Library: Hillary Clinton says she has no control over the release of documents from her husband’s presidential library, including those that cover her eight years as first lady. Representatives of the National Archives are slowly processing more than 100 million documents, and most will not be released until after the 2008 election.
Both Clintons say they favor full disclosure of the material. In 2002, President Clinton sent a letter to the National Archives, saying “my intent is to make available to the public as full a record as possible” of his White House years. But he also asked that the Archives consider withholding certain categories of information, including personal correspondence between himself and his wife.
“President Clinton has authorized the National Archives to release more presidential records faster than any other president subject to the Presidential Records Act,” said Clinton campaign spokesman Jay Carson, who until recently had worked for the former president.
In Tuesday’s debate, Obama said the Clintons should speed the release of all documents, arguing that they speak directly to the experience she says she would bring to the presidency.
“Well, that’s not my decision to make, and I don’t believe that any president or first lady ever has,” Clinton replied. “But, certainly, we’re moving as quickly as our circumstances and the processes of the National Archives permits.”
Beth Fouhy covers the presidential race for The Associated Press.
Associated Press Writer Amy Lorentzen in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.