By Sasha Issenberg, Globe Staff
PHILADELPHIA -- Hillary Clinton's chief strategist fared little better than the candidate herself in explaining whether or not she supports New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's plan to offer illegal immigrants driver’s licenses.
The New York senator appeared tripped up by the question in the waning moments of the "lightning round" of Tuesday night's Democratic debate in Philadelphia. As reporters sought Clinton aides after the debate to elaborate on her position, none of them seemed to have an answer ready.
"She thinks it's a good idea" for Spitzer to take on the issue, her chief strategist Mark Penn said, but wouldn't commit to her support for the plan.
When asked if Clinton, as a New York resident, would encourage her own state legislators to vote for it, Penn said he didn’t know.
When asked whether Clinton thought she needed to have a position on the issue, Penn reverted to the "good idea" formulation.
In September, Spitzer proposed offering licenses to illegal immigrants as a way of bringing them "out of the shadows" and encouraging road safety. After weeks of criticism, Spitzer on Friday came forward with a more modest plan that would have tiered levels of state-issued driver identification depending on immigration status.
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 Spitzer 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 – the only Democrat on the stage to do so – 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.
Illinois Senator Barack Obama offered an homage to Republican attacks on John F. Kerry's wishy-washiness during the 2004 campaign: "I can't tell whether she was for it or against it."
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