Fineman: Hillary Wards Off Rivals

Hillary Clinton said she was wearing her "asbestos pantsuit" in Las Vegas, but, more important, she was wearing a smile and carrying a fistful of ammo and sound bites. It was time to drop her rising challenger, Barack Obama, and she did it with the grin and grace of a Park Avenue gun moll. Asked at the end of a ragged CNN debate whether she preferred diamonds or pearls, she answered "both."

By that time, in other words, she was confident enough to joke about the very thing critics had been blasting her for the previous two weeks: her penchant for taking all sides of all issues.

Better rested and more relaxed, Clinton raced to the center of the ring throwing punches at Obama, claiming that his health plan would leave 15 million people uninsured and that his Social Security plan would require a "trillion-dollar tax increase." Obama counterpunched, but the point is that he was backpedaling for a change.

CNN's Campbell Brown did Hillary the favor of asking about the "boys" who were supposedly attacking her. The senator from New York was ready with an aria of lines—surely written by Mandy Grunwald and maybe even focus-grouped by Mark Penn. Clinton denied that she was playing the "gender card" but, rather, the "winning card." "I understand," she said, that "people are attacking me not because I am a woman but because I am ahead." However prefab, they were good lines—and they worked.

There was even some residual, albeit minimal, virtue in Hillary's having flipped and gyrated on the issue of driver's licenses for illegals. Having decided to change positions—and privately nudged, through intermediaries, Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York to do the same—she was able to give a one-word answer to Wolf Blitzer's straightforward question: Do you favor giving licenses to illegals. "No," she said.

Obama, by contrast, was uncharacteristically bobbing and weaving, saying at one point, "I'm not proposing that we do it," before giving up and agreeing with his own previously stated position. Obama also refused to give a direct answer to Blitzer's question about whether American national security is more important than human rights. Intellectually, Obama was correct in saying that it was a false choice. But that did not prevent Hillary from doing her Thatcher-Meir Iron Lady act. "The first obligation is to protect and defend America," she scolded.

Obama also had to concede to Blitzer that he had failed to vote on an Iran measure he had been lambasting Hillary for supporting. "It's true, it was a mistake," he said.

To be sure, Hillary had her lame moments. She airily dismissed the NAFTA debate in 1993 as a cavalcade of "charts," forgetting, perhaps, that union members think they have lost a million jobs as a result of the deal. And she attempted to defend the idea that people making $97,000 a year are members of the "middle class."  That's true enough for some people—the ones who think it's reasonable to have diamonds and pearls.

But when you've had a good night, that's a luxury you can afford.