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After two weeks, can Clinton stop the slide?

November 15, 2007 |  2:54 am

Hillary Clinton, who was both for and against giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants two weeks ago, came out against them again last night. Her latest decision came on the same day that New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer met in Washington with his state's congressional delegation (minus Clinton) and announced that he was abandoning his controversial plan to issue licenses to illegal immigrants.

"As president," the senator said, "I will not support driver’s licenses for undocumented people and will press for comprehensive immigration reform that deals with all of the issues around illegal immigration, including border security and fixing our broken system."

This was likely a vain attempt to take the volatile license issue off the discussion table heading into tonight's 5 p.m. Pacific CNN debate in Nevada, where her opponents -- primarily Barack Obama and John Edwards -- must continue to chip away at her standing. According to a new CNN poll, she holds a 51% to 23% to 11% edge over Obama and Edwards in Nevada. The Times' Scott Martelle examines campaigning for that state's caucuses here on this website and in Thursday's print editions.

Two weeks ago in the last Democratic debate, Clinton was doing her usual steady job as the front-runner until the last few minutes, when she stumbled over two issues -- her support for/opposition to the driver's licenses and whether she would open her first lady document files, which she says provided the experience that qualifies her to be president but won't allow anyone to see.

Moderator Tim Russert first asked her if giving licenses to illegals made a lot of sense, and ....

Clinton appeared to endorse the idea, explaining Spitzer's thinking and blaming the Bush administration for a lack of comprehensive immigration reform.

Then, when Chris Dodd said he opposed the plan, Clinton needlessly interjected, "I just want to add I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Gov. Spitzer is trying to do ..."

Russert then sought to clarify: "I just want to make sure of what I heard. 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: "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 problem. 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."

O.K., now do you understand her position?

Her opponents didn't either, and pounced on classic Clinton wanting it both ways. The next day her campaign manager in a fundraising appeal sought to portray it as six guys "piling on." Clinton then told the women at her alma mater that her schooling there prepared her to play in the all-boys president's club. And then Bill Clinton weighed in, suggesting the criticism equaled the Swift boat smearing of John Kerry.

Then a 19-year-old Iowa college sophomore innocently revealed she'd been given a planted question to ask at a Clinton forum in Iowa (video of the planted question here; a longer interview video of the student here). And the Clinton campaign had to admit to the rigging.

So it's been a tough two weeks off-message for the senator. And it's shown in the polls, with Clinton's once mammoth lead dwindling like a Slim-Fast diet, despite her fat bank account and bounteous endorsements.

So, tonight is a big opportunity for Clinton to regain her momentum or for Obama and Edwards to throw her further off-stride in the last seven weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

Indications are they won't go easy on her. After Clinton's Wednesday statement on licenses, Obama's spokesman, Bill Burton, said, "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."

-- Andrew Malcolm