LAS VEGAS, Nevada (CNN) -- Sen. Hillary Clinton stepped into the ring Thursday in this city known for prize fights, successfully beating back an onslaught of punches thrown from the left and right as her opponents sought to rattle the front-runner seven weeks before the Iowa caucuses.
Seven Democratic presidential hopefuls gather for their debate in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Clinton, who entered this Democratic debate vulnerable following a lackluster performance two weeks ago, came out fighting in the first round.
For the New York Democrat, a good defense was a strong offense, and she sought to silence her critics who stood just feet away.
"I don't mind taking hits on my record, on issues," she said. "But when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook."
Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards each tried to set the tone early when asked to explain their criticisms of Clinton, such as their charges that she is unwilling to answer difficult questions. See how CNN's political team rated the debaters »
"Sen. Clinton, I think, is a capable politician, and I think that she has run a terrific campaign," Obama said. "But what the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions, and that is not what we've seen out of Sen. Clinton on a host of issues, on the issue of drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants."
Edwards knocked Clinton for her stance on Iraq and Social Security and tried to hammer home his claim that she is part of the problem in Washington. Watch rivals, audience focus attention on front-runner »
"The most important issue is she says she will bring change to Washington, while she continues to defend a system that does not work, that is broken, that is rigged and is corrupted against the interest of most Americans and corrupted for a very small, very powerful, very well-financed group," he said.
In the lead-up to the debate, Clinton's campaign had accused the other contenders -- the "all boys club" -- of "piling on" and attacking her. Even though the senator's husband, former President Bill Clinton, had echoed this same sentiment, she denied it was a calculated attempt to play the "gender card."
"I understand very well that people are not attacking me because I'm a woman," she said. "They're attacking me because I'm ahead."
What started out as a debate sure to leave blood on the floor at the final bell eventually settled into a less confrontational conversation over issues.
While Obama and Edwards did not win in Las Vegas, neither suffered a devastating loss.
Besides Clinton, Sen. Joe Biden's down-to-earth, tell-it-straight style helped him turn out a good performance.
And Sen. Chris Dodd and Gov. Bill Richardson made sure they were not forgotten in a race that is clearly being dominated by Clinton, Obama and Edwards.
Oftentimes the biggest news coming out of a presidential debate is when a candidate makes a major stumble, but on Thursday night it was about a recovery.
In Nevada, Clinton has a major lead, according to a new CNN/Opinion Research Corp. Poll. And even though the Silver State will play a role in helping to select the next Democratic nominee, the Las Vegas debate might have been more important to the caucus voters in Iowa.
A new poll released just hours before the candidates took the stage shows that the Hawkeye State is up for grabs. The KCCI-TV survey showed Clinton, Obama and Edwards are all in a position to win the caucuses, with 11 percent of Iowa voters still undecided about who they will back on January 3.
Though the finish line in the marathon for the Democratic nomination is in sight, the race is not yet over. The candidates are scheduled to meet several more times before Iowa -- more opportunities for stumbles. E-mail to a friend
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