Hillary says she can handle critics

Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday her status as the Democratic presidential front-runner — not her gender — has led her male primary rivals to intensify their criticism of her.

“I don’t think they’re piling on because I’m a woman. I think they’re piling on because I’m winning,” Clinton told reporters after filing paperwork to appear on the New Hampshire primary ballot.

“I anticipate it’s going to get even hotter, and if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen. I’m very much at home in the kitchen,” she said.

The New York senator’s comments came three days after a televised debate in which her six male opponents challenged her character, electability and apparent unwillingness to answer tough questions.

The Clinton campaign reacted strongly to what it called “piling on.” One fundraising e-mail it sent out called her “one tough woman” and decried the “six on one” nature of the debate criticism. Clinton herself referred to the “all boys club of presidential politics” in a speech at Wellesley College Thursday.

The complaints haven’t deterred her rivals. On Friday, John Edwards told a campaign audience in South Carolina that Clinton hasn’t been candid with voters.

“Since the debate, we’ve continued to hear spin, smoke and mirrors — the same kind of double talk — to get away from the very serious issues that are in front of us in this campaign,” he said.

And in a television interview, Barack Obama, who is black, said he doesn’t assume that tough questions he’s asked are racially motivated.

“We spent, I think, the first 15 minutes of the debate hitting me on various foreign policy issues and I didn’t come out and say look I’m being hit on because I look different from the rest of the folks on the stage,” Obama told NBC’s “Today” show.

On the day she made her candidacy official in the leadoff primary state, Clinton was pressed anew on topics raised in Tuesday’s debate.

On the thorny topic of granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, Clinton said she generally supported efforts by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and others who have tried to address public safety questions in absence of federal immigration reform.

Last weekend, Spitzer announced a plan backed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to give licenses with limited privileges to some undocumented workers.

“I don’t know all the details,” Clinton said, adding that the issue was going to be hard to resolve.

“We’ve had, now, seven years of an administration that saw things in black and white, yes and no, up and down. I think it’s time we actually had a conversation with the American people,” she said.

Clinton disputed the notion that her answers to tough questions were too “nuanced,” arguing that many of the issues facing the next president aren’t easily explained in a televised soundbite.

“I feel very comfortable about the positions I’ve taken. I will continue to say what I believe. Sometimes it won’t be as artfully presented as I would wish,” she said.

Clinton also reacted defensively to complaints that she has been less accessible to reporters than other candidates competing for the presidency.

“We will continue to run our campaign as we run our campaign,” she said.

She spoke outside the office of New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who has the sole authority to set the date for the state’s primary.

Gardner has indicated it will be no later than Jan. 8, rather than the once-planned date of Jan. 22 because Michigan and Florida have taken steps to move their contests up.

Later, she greeted hundreds of supporters at a rally in Concord and dropped by a diner in Manchester.

On the other side of the country, former President Clinton defended his wife on another issue that was raised in the debate: whether he has tried to block papers from her years as first lady from being released by the National Archives.

“The whole thing was a total canard,” he told an audience in Seattle, referring to the moment when debate moderator Tim Russert held up a 1994 letter written by the former president to the Archives, asking that certain records be withheld.

He said his wife didn’t know at the time that he had written a second letter in 2002 asking the Archives to release his presidential papers as quickly as possible.

He contended the debate moderators had played “gotcha” with his wife while tossing softball questions to her rivals.


Associated Press Writer Jim Davenport contributed to this story from South Carolina.