For the first section of last night's Democratic debate -- during the entire section on that arcane Kyl-Lieberman amendment on Iran -- frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, held her own just fine, I thought, and her reluctance to engage in the tit-for-tat bickering served her well.
But then something must have happened during that first commercial break.
Because when we came back, she seemed obfuscatory and less than forthright.
Take the question on whether or not she would allow the National Archives to open up more records of her husband's presidency -- a pertinent one given her declaration that her eight years as First Lady constitutes "experience," not to mention her husband's request that the National Archives keep their communications sealed until 2012."The Archives is moving as rapidly as the Archives moves," she said. 'There's about 20 million pieces of paper there. And they are move, and they are releasing as they do their process. And I am fully in favor of that."
She was pressed on her husbands request that any communication between the two of them not be made available to the public until 2012. "Would you lift that ban?" she was asked by moderator Tim Russert."Well, that's not my decision to make, and I don't believe that any president or first lady ever has. But, certainly, we're move as quickly as our circumstances and the processes of theNational Archives permits."
Said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois: "We have just gone through one of the most secretive administrations in our history. And not releasing, I think, these records at the same time, Hillary, that you're making the claim that this is the basis for your experience, I think, is a problem."
It went on like that.
Russert flatly accused her of being duplicitous on Social Security, saying to him and at an AARP-hosted debate that she would not increasing Social Security taxes, then telling a teacher -- and being overheard by an AP reporter -- that she would consider it. "Why do you have one public position and one private position?" Russert asked.
Clinton denied she did, saying -- when pressed on her private conversation with a teacher -- that "everybody knows what the possibilities are, Tim. Everybody knows that. But I do not advocate it. I do not support it."
Then came questions about the tax reform proposal offered by one of her biggest supporters, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-NY, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Campaigning with Rangel and his wife, former President Bill Clinton on Saturday said, "Charlie Rangel wants me to pay more taxes so you can pay less and I think that's a good idea."
Is that Sen. Clinton's view?
Clinton declared herself a "great admirer of Chairman Rangel." Then she said "I don't know all the details of what Charlie is recommending, but I certainly agree with the goal."
Then she sounded as if she was quite familiar with the details of what Rangel is recommending.
Then she said "I don't agree with all the details, but he's on the right track to say we've got to do something about" the Alternative Minimum Tax.
Her worst moment came at the end of the debate, (watch it HERE) when asked about a comment she gave to a New Hampshire newspaper that New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's controversial proposal to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants "makes a lot of sense."
"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. "We know in New York we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally. They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds. It's probability. So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum."
Then Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., took issue with Spitzer's proposal.
Clinton then interjected -- "Well, I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do…"
If you paid attention you might have felt hundreds of thousands of Americans go: HUH?"No, no, no," Dodd said. "You said -- you said yes, you thought it made sense to do it.""No, I didn't, Chris," said Clinton.
"Senator Clinton, I just want to make sure of what I heard," said Russert. "Do you, the New York senator, Hillary Clinton, support the New York governor's plan to give illegal immigrants a driver's license?You told the New Hampshire paper that it made a lot of sense. Do you support his plan?"
Clinton got defensive. "You know, Tim, this is where everybody plays 'gotcha.' It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problems. We have failed. And George Bush has failed. Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No. But do I understand the sense of real desperation, trying to get a handle on this? Remember, in New York, we want to know who's in New York. We want people to come out of the shadows. He's making an honest effort to do it. We should have passed immigration reform."
It fed into the meme that Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, D-NC, had been pushing all night -- that Clinton is calculating and less than honest.
So they, too, pounced.
"Unless I missed something, Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes just a few minutes ago," Edwards said. "And I think this is a real issue for the country. I mean, America is looking for a president who will say the same thing, who will be consistent, who will be straight with them. Because what we've had for seven years is double-talk from Bush and from Cheney, and I think America deserves us to be straight."
Added Obama: "Well, I was confused on Senator Clinton's answer. I can't tell whether she was for it or against it. And I do think that is important. One of the things that we have to do in this country isto be honest about the challenges that we face."
Clinton is still the frontrunner, and has a commanding lead. But it was shaky performance, with the grand finale of the debate being a devastating punch delivered by … Clinton herself.