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updated 11/1/2007 2:02:31 PM ET 2007-11-01T18:02:31
ANALYSIS

To understand where the Democratic presidential primary race stands today -- and how each candidate is working to change it -- consider some revealing numbers from Tuesday's debate in Philadelphia.

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How many times did Hillary Rodham Clinton's rivals attack her by name? Nineteen. John Edwards led the way with nine separate critiques designed to isolate Clinton from the Democratic mainstream. Following a highly touted drumroll he created in a recent New York Times interview but then dismissed as "hype," Barack Obama trailed with seven; four times he referred to her only as "Hillary." Christopher Dodd brought up the rear with three slings at the New York senator.

How many times did Clinton launch pre-emptive strikes? Zero.

The numbers are revealing, if not entirely surprising. Clinton is more than 20 points ahead in national polls -- which are more relevant than ever this year because of the campaign's front-loaded calendar and national primary day on Feb. 5 -- and she's running a classic front-runner's campaign that relies little on attacking, or even responding to, her primary rivals. She doesn't need to... yet.

Instead, consider this: How many times did Clinton mention the names of George W. Bush or Dick Cheney? Twenty-five -- more than all six of her rivals combined, including twice in the first few minutes of the two-hour debate.

Sixty-three days before an Iowa caucus now shaping up to be a bloodbath, Clinton wants to blur key distinctions between herself and her rivals while focusing (distracting?) voters' attention on their Republican targets. It's been part of Clinton's strategy from Day One; it is now the centerpiece of her hopes to survive.

One reason Democrats have struggled to gain traction against Clinton on charges that she's too conservative to win the Democratic nomination is that Republicans never let up on her, as she argued Tuesday in Philly.

But perhaps even more importantly, there's a key flaw in the strategies of Edwards and Obama. Both base their paths to success on painting Clinton as an evasive, obfuscating pol who, as she did Tuesday in discussing a New York plan to offer driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, can appear to embrace several sides of one issue. A fine critique. But here's the problem: It's Republican primary voters who traditionally punish flip-floppers, not Democrats. While such questions have plagued Mitt Romney throughout the campaign, for example, the three past Democratic nominees (Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry) won their party's nod despite deep reservations about their ideological authenticity.

On the other hand, as Edwards and Obama are warning, two of those nominees went on to defeat precisely because Republicans effectively painted them as genetically incapable of taking strong, clear stands. We're already seeing early signs that Republicans will do so with Clinton.

Rudy Giuliani, who himself became a target at the debate on Tuesday, responded on Wednesday morning. "I was very pleased with the position I had in the debate last night," he told reporters, jokingly. "I actually am claiming victory in the Democratic debate.... I didn't take two positions on something, and I didn't say I saw an unidentified flying object. I came out of it pretty good."

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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