The Contenders Take the Gloves Off at Last

Presidential contenders turn it up a notch

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The truce is over, and that's all to the good.

With the first balloting of the 2008 presidential campaign only two months away in Iowa, the candidates are starting to throw elbows and define their differences more sharply than ever. Not surprisingly, the front-runners—Rudy Giuliani for the Republicans and Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democrats—are the biggest targets as their rivals try to slow them down. And while Rudy and Hillary are doing their share of complaining—with some Clinton surrogates suggesting that her male rivals are "piling on"—this comparative phase of the campaign is exactly what will sort things out.

Last week's Democratic debate in Philadelphia gave important insights into the party's presidential wannabes, especially Clinton. She absorbed the harshest shots, mainly from John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama, who suggested she was evasive on some issues and wrong on others. But Clinton got into the most trouble when she tried to dodge questions from comoderator Tim Russert of NBC about whether she supports allowing illegal immigrants in New York to obtain driver's licenses, as the governor is recommending. Glaring and uncomfortable, she refused to provide a straight answer, which gave her opponents an opening to portray her as a calculating, poll-driven pol—an image that remains one of her biggest vulnerabilities.

The tiff also nicked Clinton's armor by raising fresh questions about her political instincts, especially on an inflammatory issue such as illegal immigration. Millions of voters want forthright explanations and no-nonsense solutions. That's not what she gave them. Sensing trouble, her advisers tried to reassure supporters after the debate that she remained the front-runner and admitted that she does indeed favor issuing driver's licenses to those immigrants, largely as a way to keep track of them and perhaps improve road safety. But the damage was done.

In the end, the fuss was an illuminating moment. And that's what the campaign needs more of, not another round of political patty-cake.