AP – Under pressure in a feisty debate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton accused her closest rivals last night of slinging mud “right out of the Republican playbook” and leveled her sharpest criticism of the campaign at their records.

Brian Merlos
(JENNIFER KRON/Daily)

“People are not attacking me because I’m a woman, they’re attacking me because I’m ahead,” Clinton said, striving to protect her standing as front-runner in an increasingly competitive nominating campaign.

“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’s licenses for illegal immigrants and other issues, 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.

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.

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