LAS VEGAS (AP) - The Democrats' first debate out West gives the party's presidential contenders an opportunity to spotlight the region's issues " though the focus may be more on the first face-to-face confrontation between Hillary Rodham Clinton and her foes since the "piling on" debate of two weeks ago.
Thursday night's debate comes exactly seven weeks before the Iowa caucuses lead off the voting for 2008 presidential nominations. Clinton, the New York senator, is the party's front-runner in national polls but is in a tight race in Iowa with Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
Those two challengers went after her hard in Philadelphia two weeks ago, raising questions about her candor and willingness to answer tough questions, and leading her to declare her foes were "piling on because I'm winning."
In that debate " "I wasn't at my best," Clinton conceded " she gave a muddy series of answers on the subject of giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. On Wednesday, the eve of the Las Vegas debate, she said unequivocally that she did not support the idea.
Hours before the debate, Clinton's chief strategist put out a memo citing her lead over rivals on qualities such as leadership and experience in recent polls. "While opponents are strategizing and re-launching their campaigns with aggressive personal attacks on Senator Clinton, one truth remains " running for president is not a qualification for president," Mark Penn wrote.
Other participants in Thursday night's debate are New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
The location of the debate highlights Nevada's new role in the presidential nominating process. Democrats allowed the state to move its caucus this year to Jan. 19, right after the traditional early state powerhouses Iowa and New Hampshire, in order to give an ethnically diverse Western state a bigger role in selecting the party's nominee. Democrats in Nevada hoped the early contest would force the candidates to pay closer heed to Western issues like water, grazing and mining rights.
National Democratic leaders believe the mountain West is a key area for the party, with fast-growing and once heavily Republican states like Nevada, Colorado and Arizona trending more Democratic in recent elections. The 2008 Democratic National Convention will be in Denver next August.
Thursday's debate is on CNN at 8 p.m. EST.