After stormy period, Clinton faces another debate

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WASHINGTON, Nov 15 (Reuters) After a stormy couple of weeks, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton will attempt to right the ship tonight at a campaign debate with her rivals.

The increasingly combative Democratic candidates gather in Las Vegas for the televised debate with just seven weeks left before Iowa starts Americans down the path toward the November 4, 2008, presidential election.

Clinton, a senator from New York, was widely seen to have stumbled at the last debate, on October 30 in Philadelphia, when her equivocating answers on Iraq, Social Security and illegal immigration prompted charges of double-talk from top rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards.

In the days that followed, the Clinton campaign accused her male rivals of ''piling on'' her and talked about competing in ''the all-boys' club of presidential politics'' -- prompting accusations she was trying to play the role of female victim.

Then last week, the Clinton campaign was caught planting a question about global warming through a college student in the audience at a campaign event in Newton, Iowa. Once the incident came to light, Clinton said she had not been aware of such a practice and would not tolerate it.

All that has led to fevered speculation the seemingly invincible Clinton might not be the inevitable Democratic nominee as her campaign would like Americans to believe.

So another tussle is expected in Las Vegas, where heavyweight boxing matches sometimes share the spotlight with the gambling industry.

''I'm expecting that the debate will be a lot more pointed,'' said Linda Fowler, professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Clinton leads national opinion polls but is in a tight race with Edwards and Obama in Iowa, where a win can generate momentum for the remaining state contests in the party nomination process.

Already some shots are being exchanged. The Edwards campaign could not resist bringing up the planted question incident.

''Tonight you are going to see Senator Edwards continue to answer questions openly and honestly. You are also going to see Senator Clinton look confused when she gets a global warming question from (CNN anchor) Wolf Blitzer instead of a college student,'' said Edwards spokeswoman Colleen Murray.

Before the debate, New York's Democratic governor, Eliot Spitzer, gave Clinton what amounted to a gift, taking off the table the issue of whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to have driver's licenses.

At the last debate, Clinton initially said the idea made a lot of sense but then left her position vague.

Yesterday, she issued a statement saying she supported Spitzer's decision and did not support granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

The Obama and Edwards campaigns ridiculed the move.

''When it takes two weeks and six different positions to answer one question on immigration, it's easier to understand why the Clinton campaign would rather plant their questions than answer them,'' Obama spokesman Bill Burton said.

Doug Schoen, a Democratic strategist unaligned with any candidate, said Spitzer's move and Clinton's response made the issue moot.

''I think the issue's gone now. Spitzer has pulled it off the table. It's done,'' Schoen said.

Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf, who supports Clinton, said the former first lady had to decide when to hit back at her opponents.

''The big thing she has to decide is how long is she going to take it, and is she going to hit back and how hard is she going to hit back. For any front-runner, that's the strategic decision you have to make,'' he said.

REUTERS JT SSC1152

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