Clinton's answer on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants drew fire.
PHILADEPHIA (CNN) - Democratic presidential contender, New York's Sen. Hillary Clinton said New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's controversial plan to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants "makes a lot of sense," but stopped short of endorsing the plan in Tuesday night's debate in Philadelphia.
At least one opponent accused her of "saying two different things in the course of about two minutes."
Asked about the proposal, Clinton said Spitzer is trying to find a solution to a bigger problem.
"We know in New York we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally," Clinton said. "So what Gov. Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum.
"I believe we need to get back to comprehensive immigration reform because no state, no matter how well intentioned, can fill this gap. There needs to be federal action on immigration reform."
Sen. Chris Dodd disagreed on issuing licenses to illegal immigrants, calling the plan "troublesome." He said, "a license is a privilege, and that ought not to be extended, in my view."
Moments later, Clinton said, "I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize what Gov. Spitzer is trying to do ..."
Rivals on stage jumped on her answer. Dodd told her, "No, no, no. You said, 'yes.'"
Pressed to clarify her answer, Clinton said, "This is where everybody plays 'gotcha.' It makes a lot of sense.
"What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problems. We have failed. And George Bush has failed.
"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."
Former Sen. John Edwards claimed her answer was inconsistent, saying "Unless I missed something, Sen. Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes, just a few minutes ago, and I think this is a real issue for the country.
"I mean, America is looking for a president who will say the same thing, who will be consistent, who will be straight with them."
Sen. Barack Obama said "I was confused on Sen. Clinton's answer. I can't tell whether she was for it or against it and I do think that is important.
"One of the things that we have to do in this country is to be honest about the challenges that we face. Immigration is a difficult issue, but part of leadership is not just looking backwards and seeing what's popular or trying to gauge popular sentiment."
Obama called the proposal "the right idea," but added, "That doesn't negate the need for us to reform illegal immigration."
The Democratic presidential candidates next square off November 15 at CNN's debate in Las Vegas.
- CNN Political Desk Managing Editor Steve Brusk