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Dems Debate: Did Hillary Open Door For Opponents?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

What made last night's Democratic debate on MSNBC so significant was not, as advertised ahead of time, that Barack Obama and John Edwards attacked Hillary Clinton. It was that Clinton herself unintentionally affirmed their attacks with her own words.

On a series of issues--Social Security, taxes, and most conspicuously immigration--the Democratic front-runner gave answers that seemed self-evidently designed to obscure rather than clarify her positions. Obama said she was displaying political savvy rather than the straight talk America needs; Edwards contrasted her various "primary mode" and "general election mode" postures with what he called the "truth-telling mode" that Democrats crave in the post-Bush political world.

By her answers, Clinton made those arguments stronger. And that puts one of her few obviously vulnerabilities in the center of the campaign table with two months to go before the critical test all candidates face in Iowa.

The debate was significant for another reason too: it illuminated the meaning of the "experience" Clinton is claiming as an advantage over her rivals. Unlike Edwards and Obama, Clinton came of age politically at a time when Democrats were desperately insecure about their ability to compete nationally against an ascendant GOP.

Her experience teaches that Democrats must guard zealously against giving Republicans targets for attack in a general election. Voting for tough talk on Iran and for the Iraq war five years ago, and refusing to be pinned down on taxes or Social Security all meet that test. Obama and Edwards came of age in a more confident Democratic era--ironically, the Bill Clinton era.

Their differences in this regard shouldn't be exaggerated. Edwards voted for the Iraq war too, after all, and Obama ducked from embracing the details of Rep. Charlie Rangel's tax overhaul bill just as Clinton did.

But now they have an opening that didn't exist 24 hours ago to make the most of those differences, such as they are. Does that turn the race upside down? Hardly. But at a point that might be regarded as that beginning of the bell lap, it's a race that all of a sudden looks more interesting.

Questions? Comments? Write to politicalcapital@cnbc.com.