AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREStriving toward a more perfect me: Doug McIntyre The three-way confrontation at the beginning of a lengthy debate reduced the other Democratic presidential hopefuls on the debate stage to the uncomfortable role of spectator, yet it perfectly captured the race for the party’s nomination. Clinton leads in the nationwide polls, but recent surveys in Iowa show she is in a virtual dead heat with Obama and Edwards. For Richardson, Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, the opening moments were frustrating – and they repeatedly tried to break in. “Oh, no, don’t make me speak,” Biden said in mock horror when moderator Wolf Blitzer called on him roughly 15 minutes into the proceedings. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has campaigned in Nevada more than any other presidential hopeful, took verbal shots at Clinton and her two closest pursuers in the polls. “Let’s stop the mudslinging,” he said. LAS VEGAS – Under pressure in a feisty debate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton accused her closest rivals Thursday night of slinging mud “right out of the Republican playbook” and leveled her sharpest criticism of the campaign at their records. “What the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions, and that is not what we have seen from Senator Clinton on a host of issues,” said Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in the opening moments of a debate seven weeks before the first contest of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. “There’s nothing personal about this,” said former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who joined Obama in bluntly accusing Clinton of forever switching positions on Social Security, driver licenses for illegal immigrants and other issues. “The American people know where I stand,” said Clinton, turning aside the suggestion that she was seeking to hide her positions. Long an advocate of universal health care, she said Obama’s current proposal leaves millions uncovered and that Edwards did not support health care for all when he first ran for president in 2004. Yet Richardson, who has campaigned in Nevada more than any other presidential hopeful, took verbal shots at Clinton and her two closest pursuers in the polls. He said Edwards is engaging in class warfare, Obama was trying to start a generational war and Clinton, “with all due respect with her plan on Iraq doesn’t end the war. All I want to do is give peace a chance.” Richardson was in the minority when the candidates were asked whether human rights could ever trump national security. He said it could; Clinton said it could not, and Dodd said “obviously national security.” Obama challenged the question, saying “the concepts are not contradictory.” Clinton, her standing as the front-runner at risk, seemed intent on redeeming what even she conceded was a sub-par performance at the previous debate, turning aside criticism from her rivals and answering questions with practiced ease. Asked whether she was guilty of playing the “gender card” in her drive to become the first female president, she said she had not. “They’re not attacking me because I’m a woman. They’re attacking me because I’m ahead,” she said to loud applause. Obama was the first to challenge Clinton, saying it took two weeks to “get a clear answer” on whether she supports or opposes issuing driver licenses for illegal immigrants. “The same is true on Social Security,” he said. For the first time in a debate since the campaign began, Clinton swiftly answered in kind. “When it came time to step up and decide whether or not he would support universal health care coverage he chose not to do that,” she said of Obama. She added his plan would leave 15 million people without coverage – the population of Iowa and three other early voting states in the nominating campaign. Edwards was next to accuse Clinton of trying to have it both ways – with the war in Iraq, Social Security and defining the scope of President George W. Bush’s power to use military force against Iran. “She says she will bring change to Washington while she continues to defend a system that does not work, that is broken, that is rigged, that is corrupt,” added the former North Carolina senator. “I’ve just been personally attacked again,” Clinton broke in. “I don’t mind taking hits on my record on issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud at least we can hope it’s accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook.” The debate unfolded on a stage at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. The focus on Clinton from the debate’s opening moments was hardly surprising. The senator herself has conceded she turned in a sub-par performance at the last debate, when she stumbled on a question about driver licenses for illegal immigrants.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!