(CNSNews.com) - Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who is running second to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) in polls of the Democratic presidential race, said in a debate on CNN Thursday that he supports giving driver's licenses to illegal aliens.
Clinton, meanwhile, said she did not. When asked, she simply said, "No." That is an apparent reversal of the position she took in an Oct. 30 debate hosted by MSNBC. Then, she gave a long and apparently contradictory series of answers about whether to give illegals driver's licenses.
Those apparent non-response answers sparked controversy, and former President Bill Clinton came to his wife's defense. He argued that a quick answer to such questions would make "all the Democrats vulnerable to a Swift-boat-kind of ad in the general election."
In CNN's debate on Thursday, it was Obama who initially used oblique language to discuss his position in favor of granting driver's licenses to illegal aliens. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, who moderated the debate, eventually pinned him down to an unambiguous answer.
The issue has been highlighted in the Democratic presidential campaign since the Oct. 30 debate on MSNBC, when Clinton gave a contradictory answer on the issue to host Tim Russert.
When Russert pointed out that Clinton had told a New Hampshire newspaper that New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer's plan to give driver's licenses to illegal aliens made a lot of sense, Clinton at first seemed to defend Spitzer's plan. Then, she appeared to distance herself from it.
"Why does it make a lot of sense to give an illegal immigrant a driver's license?" Russert asked Clinton in that debate.
"We know in New York we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally," said Clinton. "They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds. It's probability. So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum."
After Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, also participating in the debate, sharply criticized the proposal to give driver's licenses to illegal aliens, Clinton hedged her support for Spitzer's plan. "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.
Dodd, however, would not let her get away with it. "Wait a minute. No, no, no," he said, interrupting Clinton. "You said, yes, you thought it made sense to do it."
"No, I didn't, Chris," said Clinton.
Eventually, in that same debate, however, Clinton seemed to once again defend giving driver's licenses to illegal aliens, while criticizing Russert for trying to make her give a clear statement of her position.
"Well, what Governor Spitzer has agreed to do is to have three different licenses; one that provides identification for actually going onto airplanes and other kinds of security issues, another which is an ordinary driver's license, and then a special card that identifies the people who would be on the road," she said.
To which Dodd rejoined: "That's a bureaucratic nightmare."
Russert finally said, "I just want to make sure what I heard. Do you, the New York Senator Hillary Clinton, support the New York governor's plan to give illegal immigrants a driver's license? You told the Nashua, New Hampshire, paper it made a lot of sense. ... Do you support his plan?"
"You know, Tim, this is where everybody plays gotcha," said Clinton. "It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problem. "
A moment later, Clinton added: "Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No. But do I understand the sense of real desperation, trying to get a handle on this? Remember, in New York we want to know who's in New York. We want people to come out of the shadows. He's making an honest effort to do it."
At CNN's debate Thursday, moderator Wolf Blitzer similarly sought to pin down Obama's position on driver's licenses for illegal aliens.
"On the issue that apparently tripped up Senator Clinton earlier, the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, I take it, Senator Obama, you support giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Is that right?" asked Blitzer.
"When I was a state senator in Illinois, I voted to require that illegal aliens get trained, get a license, get insurance to protect public safety. That was my intention," said Obama.
"And - but I have to make sure that people understand. The problem we have here is not driver's licenses. Undocumented workers do not come here to drive. They don't go - they're not coming here to go to the In-N-Out Burger. That's not the reason they're here," he said.
"They're here to work. And so instead of being distracting by what has now become a wedge issue, let's focus on actually solving the problem that this administration, the Bush administration, had done nothing about it," Obama added.
"Well, let's go through everybody because I want to be precise," said Blitzer. "Do you support or oppose driver's licenses for illegal immigrants?"
Obama responded: "I am not proposing that that's what we do. What I'm saying is that we can't ..."
At this evasion, the audience started laughing. "No, no, no, no," said Obama. "Look, I have already said, I support the notion that we have to deal with public safety and that driver's licenses at the same level can make that happen. But what I also know ... Wolf, is that if we keep on getting distracted by this problem, then we are not solving it."
Blitzer then quizzed the other candidates for a "yes or no answer." Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said he opposed giving driver's licenses to illegal aliens, while noting that once he put people on a "path to citizenship," he would let them get licenses. As in the earlier debate, Dodd said he opposed giving licenses to illegal aliens.
Then Blitzer put the question to Obama again. "Senator Obama, yes or no?" he asked.
"Yes," said Obama.
In contrast to her answer to this same question in the Oct. 30 debate, Clinton's answer this time was succinct. "No," she said.
The day before, in the face of overwhelming public opposition, Spitzer had announced he was withdrawing his plan to give driver's licenses to illegal aliens.
"It does not take a stethoscope to hear the pulse of New Yorkers on this topic," Spitzer said.
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