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Clinton fights back against debate rivals

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  • Sen. Hillary Clinton decries what she calls mudslinging among Democrats
  • Ex-Sen. John Edwards: Clinton defends a system that is rigged and corrupt
  • Sen. Barack Obama criticizes Clinton for not giving "straight answers"
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LAS VEGAS, Nevada (CNN) -- Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton fought back at criticism from some of her presidential rivals Thursday night, decrying what she termed mudslinging and defending her record against the charge that she avoids taking firm positions on controversial issues.

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Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at the Democratic debate Thursday night in Las Vegas.

Running far ahead in the national polls, Clinton has come under sharper attack after a lackluster performance in a debate last month, a fact she acknowledged Thursday night by saying she was wearing an "asbestos" pantsuit.

Some polls since that October debate have shown her lead narrowing.

CNN senior political correspondent Candy Crowley observed that Clinton had reserved any attacks in previous debates on Republicans but counterpunched against her rivals Thursday at the CNN-sponsored event at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"I don't mind taking hits on my record on issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook," she replied to a challenge from former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina about inconsistencies in her positions.

"For him to be throwing this mud and making these charges I think really detracts from what we're trying to do here tonight. We need to put forth a positive agenda for America," she said.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois -- Clinton's closest rival -- went on the offensive against the former first lady early on, saying that "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." Video Watch how audience reactions influenced the debate »

But Clinton fired back at Obama, saying he wouldn't take a strong enough stance on universal health care.

"He talks a lot about stepping up and taking responsibility and taking strong positions, but when it came time to step up and decide whether or not he would support universal health care coverage, he chose not to do that," Clinton said.

But the senator from New York had her sharpest exchanges with Edwards.

"Sen. Clinton says she will end the [Iraq] war. She also says she will continue to keep combat troops in Iraq and continue combat missions in Iraq," Edwards said.

"She says she will turn up the heat on George Bush and the Republicans, but when the crucial vote came on stopping Bush, Cheney and the neocons on Iran, she voted with Bush and Cheney."

He said, "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 corrupt." Video Watch candidates make clear who they're chasing »

The audience hooted and jeered at both Edwards and Obama as attacks continued -- when Obama accused Clinton of sounding like Republican candidate Mitt Romney and when Edwards repeated charges the front-runner took money from special interests. Watch CNN's Chris Lawrence separates debate facts and fiction Video

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson pleaded with his fellow debaters for a more civil atmosphere. See highlights from the debate »

"It seems that John wants to start a class war. It seems that Barack wants to start a generational war. It seems that Sen. Clinton, with all due respect on her plan on Iraq, doesn't end the war," Richardson said.

"All I want to do is give peace a chance," he said.

Some of the candidates further back in the pack also decried the wrangling between Clinton, Edwards and Obama.

"The American people don't give a darn about any of this stuff that's going on up here," said Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.

Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut said that "when a campaign is about turning up the heat or who's angrier or who's yelling louder, the American people turn off."

Meanwhile, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio accused Edwards of voting to open Chinese trade and bearing some responsibility for dangerous imported Chinese products.

"John, you voted for China trade, understanding that workers were going to be hurt," Kucinich said.

Thursday's event was the first debate of the campaign season in Nevada, a key battleground state with a large Latino population that will hold Democratic caucuses January 19.

Clinton has a large lead over her rivals among Nevada Democratic caucus-goers, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Wednesday.

Answering a question from the mother of a U.S. soldier concerned that the United States might go to war against Iran, Clinton defended her vote for a Senate resolution declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group.

Critics said it could be used by President Bush as a green light for an attack on Iran.

Clinton said she opposed any "rush to war," adding there was "no basis" for the fear the Senate resolution authorized such an attack.

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"The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has assisted the militias and others in killing our Americans and maiming them [in Iraq]," she said. "They have imported technology and technical assistance. I believe they are a terrorist group."

Obama -- who missed the Senate vote on the resolution but has said he opposes it -- said the problem with the measure was that it went beyond identifying the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Obama admitted that missing the vote was a mistake. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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