The presidential Hillary Clinton?

In an exchange with Tim Russert, the candidate shows off the new power dynamic.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Hillary Rodham Clinton, War Room,

Maybe it’s her improving poll numbers or maybe it’s just that after six or seven of these things, she’s finally getting the hang of it, but we thought Hillary Clinton finally came off like the front-runner that she is in Wednesday night’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire.

John Edwards and Barack Obama both looked worn down and thin, and neither scored anything like the knockout blow that must be feeling increasingly necessary. Biden backpedaled furiously after saying that Clinton would have trouble bringing people together behind her healthcare plan, and Chris Dodd just seemed embarrassed when Tim Russert asked him why he’d said that George W. Bush might like Clinton to be the Democrats’ candidate.

That left Clinton. Well, Clinton and Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson — which is to say, Clinton.

For her, the money moment came when Russert asked whether Israel would be justified in launching an attack on Iran if it believed that Iran’s nuclear capability threatened its security. Clinton refused to answer. That part isn’t new, it isn’t necessary laudable, and some certainly have seen it as a sign of weakness. In some circumstances, we might, too: God knows, there are all sorts of questions we think that George W. Bush hasn’t answered but should. But that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? For a moment there, Clinton looked “presidential,” in all the good and bad senses of the word. She cut Russert off. She talked over him. She left him sweating and sputtering. The message: There’s a new power dynamic, and I’m not the supplicant anymore. You are.

We’ll put the video up later today, but here’s the transcript:

Russert: Senator Clinton, in 1981, the Israelis took out a nuclear reactor in Iraq. On September 6th, to the best of our information, Israel attacked Syria because there was suspicion that perhaps North Korea had put some nuclear materials in Syria. If Israel concluded that Iran’s nuclear capability threatened Israel’s security, would Israel be justified in launching an attack on Iran?

Clinton: Tim, I think that’s one of those hypotheticals, that is …

Russert: It’s not a hypothetical, Senator.

Clinton: … better not addressed at this time.

Russert: It’s real life. It’s real …



Clinton: What is real life is what apparently happened in Syria, so let’s take that one step at a time.

Russert: But my question — no, let me finish.

Clinton: I know what the question is.

Russert: My question is …

Clinton: But I think it’s important to lay out what we know about Syria …

Russert: What Israel — my question is …

Clinton: … because we don’t have as much information as I wish we did. But what we think we know is that with North Korean help, both financial and technical and material, the Syrians apparently were putting together, and perhaps over some period of years, a nuclear facility, and the Israelis took it out. I strongly support that. We don’t have any more information than what I have just described. It is highly classified. It is not being shared. But I don’t want to go a step further and talk about what might or might not happen down the road with Iran.

Russert: My question was …

Clinton: But I think it is fair to say what happened in Syria, so far as we know, I support.

Russert: My question is: Would the Israelis be justified if they felt their security was being threatened by the presence of a nuclear presence in Iran, and they decided to take military action? Would they be justified?

Clinton: Well, Tim, I’m not going to answer that, because what I understand is …

Kucinich and Gravel tried to jump in and please the teacher by volunteering their answers. Clinton cut them off, too. “Well, let me just finish,” she said, “and then Mike and Dennis can answer.”

Ouch.

Were there still signs of the old Clinton? Sure. When Russert asked her how she could run on her experience and judgment after failing to make progress on healthcare as first lady and voting the wrong way on Iraq as a senator, Clinton dodged the Iraq part of the question entirely. And when Russert asked her who’d she’d back in a hypothetical World Series matchup between her hometown Chicago Cubs and her adopted New York Yankees, she said she would “probably have to alternate sides.”

Die-hard Red Sox fan John Kerry wouldn’t have had that problem. But then, Kerry isn’t the president now, either.

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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