DES MOINES, Iowa -- The Democratic candidates for president were pressed from the left in two events in Iowa Saturday and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton emerged slightly, but noticeably, as the most conservative in the field.
On issues ranging from drug crimes to immigration to relations with Cuba, Clinton took heat from liberal audiences for refusing - on emotionally charged issues - to tell them what they wanted to hear.
Her stances could be read as a mark that she, like her husband, is the centrist of the race; or as an attempt to protect herself from Republican attacks in a general election.
One of the Democrats' rare moments of policy disagreement came at the beginning of the Black and Brown forum Saturday night, the traditional venue for minority issues in Iowa where only 9 percent of citizens are members of minority groups.
Clinton, who said she supports a federal recommendation for shorter sentences for some people caught with crack cocaine, opposed making those shorter sentences retroactive - which could eventually result in the early release of 20,000 people convicted on drug charges.
"In principle I have problems with retroactivity," she said. "It's something a lot of communities will be concerned about as well."
In an interview after the debate, Clinton's pollster, Mark Penn, pointed out that the Republican front-runner has already signaled that he will attack Democrats on releasing people convicted of drug crimes.
Her five rivals present on stage - Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich - all said they favor making the shorter sentences retroactive.
"Rudy Giuliani is already going after the issue," Penn said. "He's already starting to attack Democrats, claiming it will release 20,000 convicted drug dealers."
Speaking in Florida earlier this month, Giuliani said he "would not think we would want a major movement in letting crack cocaine dealers out of jail. It doesn't sound like a good thing to do."
The contrast on drug sentencing was one of several Clinton has drawn on small-bore issues outside the direct control of the president that could turn out to be central to a general election.
Saturday afternoon, she drew boos from a liberal crowd at Des Moines Hy-Vee center after Billy Lawless, an Irish immigration activist from Chicago, asked whether she would "make a decision to give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship" during her first 100 days in office.
Clinton responded by saying she favored comprehensive immigration reform, but that first, "you've got to get Congress to pass the legislation and the president to do as much as possible, which I will do."
Her answer drew boos from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a group of which Lawless is a member and one of several groups of Chicago activists who arrived in buses at the forum.
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Clinton is also on the right among the Democratic candidates in opposing state plans to issue drivers licenses to illegal immigrants, a measure Obama favors.
At the sedate Black and Brown Debate, held at a Des Moines high school, Clinton also drew scattered hisses for refusing to contemplate lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba unless the Cuban government were to make "significant changes in the way they treated their own people."
She appeared to contemplate change in America's policy toward Cuba in the event of the death of Cuban President Fidel Castro.
"I look forward as president to perhaps being there as that opportunity [for change] arises," she said.
Her stance on Cuba also was at odds with the views of other candidates.
"We ought to abandon the embargo," said Dodd. "This embargo has done nothing but keep Fidel Castro in power."
Obama opposed normalizing relations with Cuba, but stressed he favors immediately making it easier for Cuban-Americans to send money and to travel to Cuba, in order to "send a signal that we can build on."
Cuba is also the subject of one Senate vote on which Clinton and Obama differ.
Obama twice voted to cut off funding for TV Marti, an opposition radio station run by Florida exiles, while Clinton supported maintaining it.
Those votes will have resonance in Florida, a key primary state.
Edwards said that, like Clinton, he doesn't favor normalizing relations "unless and until something has happened to Castro."
In the big picture, Clinton isn't noticeably more conservative than her rivals. Her health care plan is, arguably, more expansive than Obama's. Her stance on the war closely mirrors his.
But some of Clinton's replies left the question after the debate of whether she had demonstrated a rare refusal to pander to the left in Iowa, or whether she had already begun to gird for the general election.
© Copyright 2007 The Politico