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Clinton careful to preserve options

Strives to avoid being pigeonholed on policy

Hillary Clinton won't say how she will fix Social Security. She spurns a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq. She's for free trade, except when it doesn't work. She defends her home state's issuing of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, but doesn't really like the idea.

Yet a closer look reveals one thing Clinton has been quite explicit about - that as she campaigns, she is being careful to preserve her options as president if she goes on to win. While her speeches, debate performances, and policy prescriptions often feature hedging, Clinton has been startlingly straightforward about her refusal to be pinned down.

One of her favorite refrains in recent weeks is that she won't speculate or answer hypothetical questions.

"I'm not going to get committed to a specific approach," she said in response to a question on taxes during Tuesday night's debate.

Analysts see the New York senator hewing to her cautious, centrist political personality and campaigning with an eye toward the general election, where anything she says to primary voters can be used against her.

"It's a very intentional strategic move not to pin herself down," said Dean Spiliotes, an independent political scientist in New Hampshire. "It's tactical, but it's also perhaps part ideological. . . . It really is kind of a 'let's split the difference' approach."

Her main rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination have a harsher view: a lack of candor, or "double-talk," as John Edwards called it at Tuesday night's Democratic debate in Philadelphia. And they are trying to convince primary voters that Clinton's vagueness shows she would not be a bold leader and isn't credible enough to win next November.

"Senator Clinton has clearly decided, based on political calculation, that her campaign strategy is to tell the American people as little as possible, avoid the difficult issues, and try to blur as many differences as possible," declared a memo from Barack Obama's campaign yesterday.

Advisers to the New York senator have said that she is looking beyond Election Day to the possibility of actually having to govern.

"I think she's careful not to get caught in hypotheticals that would hamstring the flexibility the next president should have," her chief strategist, Mark Penn, said in a mid-October interview.

Yesterday, communications director Howard Wolfson disputed that she is prone to hedge or that she's angling toward the general election. "Her positions are clear," he said. "She is expressing her opinions when she is asked questions about them."

Clinton has rolled out detailed plans on a number of domestic policy issues, including healthcare and college affordability. But that doesn't mean she hasn't given herself room to tack.

She has vowed that none of her proposals will expand the federal deficit, but on a recent trip to Iowa added a quick caution, "unless there is some terrible emergency."

She has promised to roll back Bush's expansion of executive authority, but without specifics, saying it will be "part of the review that I undertake" as president.

On Iraq, she calls for an end to the war, but says it has to be done carefully, with an ongoing role for US forces fighting the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

She has been critical of trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, for hurting US workers. Her policy has quite a bit of fine print: review trade agreements every five years, double the size of the trade enforcement office, and make more workers eligible for job retraining and financial support af ter their jobs are outsourced.

But does that mean she would substantially alter American trade policy, of which her husband was a major architect? Not necessarily.

"We shouldn't have this sterile debate between free trade and fair trade," she told the Globe's editorial board last month. "I've called for smart trade. I mean, let's figure out how we can try as much as possible to have a win-win trading environment."

Her unwillingness to get boxed into a corner was on vivid, repeated display during Tuesday night's debate.

A reporter overheard her telling an Iowa voter last month that to shore up Social Security she would consider lifting the cap on payroll taxes so that wealthier Americans would pay more. But at the debate, she refused to discuss how she would cover Social Security's projected shortfall, saying instead that the government needs first to embrace fiscal responsibility and convene a bipartisan commission to offer recommendations.

"We're playing on the Republican field, and I don't intend to do that," she said, adding, "Once there's a bipartisan commission, then we can see what we need to do. But I don't want these decisions to be made in a vacuum."

Clinton took a similar line on taxes.

On the campaign trail, she has said she would raise taxes on the wealthy by reversing President Bush's cuts to pay for universal healthcare and other domestic policy proposals. But on Tuesday night, she refused to say whether she would support a congressional ally's plan to repeal the alternative minimum tax and impose an income surtax on many couples making $200,000 or more a year.

On how to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, Clinton has called for economic sanctions and diplomacy. But she deflected repeated attempts Tuesday night to get her to describe her "red line" for attacking Iran, or to pledge that Iran would not get a nuclear bomb on her watch if she were in the White House.

Clinton's tightrope act has helped her vault ahead of her rivals in the polls over the last few months, but some observers believe it may yet backfire, especially after the debate in Philadelphia, where her repeated dodges drew the most critical reviews of any of her debate performances.

Analysts say that front-runners tend to be much more cautious than other candidates, but some believe that Clinton's experience as first lady may feed an extra push in that direction.

"Having been there in the White House, you know all you are guaranteeing [with campaign promises] is that you are not going to live up to the promises you make," said a top Democratic strategist who is not working for a candidate and who declined to be named to avoid getting involved in the campaign warring.

To opponents, it's nothing more than game-playing, a reminder of Bill Clinton being derided as "Slick Willie" for shading the truth.

"She usually gets out of it by saying: 'I don't answer hypothetical questions. These are complex matters of war and peace, life and death,' " Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani said on Fox News yesterday. "Give me a break. A driver's license is not. You either are for it or against it. . . . This is the worst of the Clinton years coming back, I think."

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@ globe.com.

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