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Clinton backs N.Y. driver's license plan for illegal immigrants

Tries to steady her stance after debate stumble

Hillary Clinton came out yesterday in support of a plan by Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York to offer limited driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, after she appeared tripped up by a question on the subject in Tuesday night's Democratic debate.

"Senator Clinton supports governors like Governor Spitzer who believe they need such a measure to deal with the crisis caused by this administration's failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform," her campaign said in a statement. "As president, her goal will be to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would make this unnecessary."

The statement sought to steady Clinton after her first serious stumble of the campaign, in which she - and aides pressed by reporters after the debate - proved unable to say whether she supported Spitzer's plan.

In September, Spitzer changed a Department of Motor Vehicles policy so that illegal immigrants would become eligible for licenses. Spitzer described the move as a way to bring the estimated 500,000 qualifying New Yorkers "out of the shadows" and to improve road safety, driving down insurance costs as a result.

The policy met resistance from advocates for tougher immigration laws and, according to a report cited in yesterday's New York Times from the US Department of Homeland Security. On Friday, Spitzer came forward with a more modest plan with tiered levels of state-issued driver identification. Those without legal papers will receive a license that will allow them to drive but not serve as identification for traveling by plane.

When, in the waning moments of the debate's "lightning round," NBC's Tim Russert asked Clinton why she had told a New Hampshire editorial board that Spitzer's plan "makes a lot of sense," Clinton credited the governor with "filling the vacuum" in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform on the federal level.

Only after Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd came out against the license plan did Clinton attempt to clarify her position. "I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it," she said.

When Russert asked Clinton to pick a side, she accused him of playing "gotcha" - and her opponents were ready to join the game. "Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes," former North Carolina senator John Edwards said.

Added Senator Barack Obama of Illinois : "I can't tell whether she was for it or against it."

Several GOP candidates were happy to take on the substance of a position they say would weaken enforcement of border laws, even though two Republican governors in Florida, Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, embraced similar proposals in the past. "Senator Clinton's troubling answer on providing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants was emblematic of someone who is both dismissive of efforts to enforce our nation's immigration laws and entirely unwilling to offer a straight answer," said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for GOP hopeful Mitt Romney.

Polls in New York have shown residents opposed to the idea.

"The word immigration has a detonating charge attached to it," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant in New York. "You take a hit in some portion of the electorate for being against this, you take a bigger hit being for it. If you try to explain it, you get into more trouble," he said.

Sasha Issenberg can be reached at sissenberg@globe.com.

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