Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton accused her rivals Thursday night of slinging mud "right out of the Republican playbook" and leveled her sharpest criticism of the campaign at them.
Clinton needed a better performance than the last debate, when she was put on the defensive with sharp criticisms from Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards.
On the stage of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Thursday night, Edwards and Obama went after her again. But this time she struck back, criticizing Obama's health plan and Edwards' change of positions on some issues.
After the last debate, the Clinton campaign accused her rivals of "piling on" and at a recent appearance at Wellesley College, she talked about learning to play in the political "boys club."
Critics said she was exploiting her gender for political gain. But in Las Vegas, she rebuffed that charge, saying her rivals were not attacking her because she was a woman, but because she was ahead. In a recent Nevada poll, Clinton leads Obama by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
In the early going, Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson could barely get a word in edgewise.
When he did get to speak, Richardson said Edwards was trying to start a class war, Obama was trying to start a generational war and Clinton's plan for Iraq would not end that war.
"All I want to do," Richards said, "is give peace a chance."
The question that really tripped up Clinton in the previous debate was whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to obtain driving licenses. She seemed then to hold two positions simultaneously. In Las Vegas, the issue was raised again and her simple answer was "no" — that she didn't support the licenses.
Obama, on the other hand, struggled to explain his vote in favor of the licenses for undocumented immigrants while he was in the Illinois state senate.
Towards the end of the forum, which was sponsored by CNN, several undecided Democratic voters were allowed to ask the candidates questions. Like the professionals journalists, their questions were about Iraq, Iran, immigration and social security — a sign that the concerns of western voters may not be all that different than the concerns of voters across the country.
With additional reporting from The Associated Press