WASHINGTON -- When you're leading the Democratic presidential race, as Hillary Clinton is, you might expect other candidates to focus their sharpest criticism your way.
Yet the spin coming out of the Clinton campaign is that the men were ganging up on Hillary. Sorry, but when girls insist on playing hardball with the boys, they don't get to cry foul -- or change the game to dodge ball -- when they get bruised.
Not that Hillary Clinton did any whining herself following Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia. She's too smart for that. But somehow the idea magically surfaced that the men were piling on.
The New York Times reported that Clinton's campaign officials tried to create sympathy for Hillary the same way they did when Republican Rick Lazio confronted her during their 2000 Senate race. A Clinton adviser told The Washington Post that, "Ultimately, it was six guys against her, and she came off as one strong woman." A headline on the Drudge Report said: "Scorn: As the Men Gang Up."
Hillary's campaign people took swift advantage of her status as assault victim. A clever video, "The Politics of Pile-On," shows in rapid-fire succession the other candidates mentioning Clinton's name and ends with her saying:
"I seem to be the topic of great conversation and consternation, and that's for a reason."
Sa-wish! Score one for Clinton.
There's a reason, all right. Hillary's having her cake and eating everybody else's, too. It must be frustrating to challengers who need to attack her positions, but fear the inevitable piling-on accusations and the appearance of bullying a woman.
In debate post-mortems, moderators Brian Williams and Tim Russert were also accused of joining the pile-on, especially Russert, who kept pounding Hillary for straight answers when she tended to "bridge" to other topics.
In some instances, the pounding was justified. Hillary is nearly as proficient, if not as artful, as her husband in avoiding a firm position that might alienate someone somewhere.
When asked, for example, whether she supports New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, as Clinton apparently said she did to a New Hampshire newspaper, she circled the question.
She wasn't necessarily for it, but she wasn't necessarily against it. She wouldn't necessarily support it, but she could understand why Spitzer was doing it: to address the failure of the Bush administration, of course. She also mentioned Congress' failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who deserves a more prominent place in the Democratic lineup, seemed to better understand the concept of answering a question.
No, he said, a driver's license is a privilege and illegal immigrants don't get one. How hard was that? Pretty hard, apparently, if you don't want to offend a single Spanish-speaking voter in the U.S.
Hillary also refused to answer candidly when asked if she would release communications between her and then-President Bill Clinton that might illuminate her claims to White House experience. The former president has ordered all records kept under seal until 2012, but Hillary's response suggested that she has no choice in the matter. She can't ask her husband to lift the ban?
In another instance, Russert asked three times whether Hillary would pledge as president to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. Hillary gave three answers that were sort of yes-ish, but that left uncomfortable wiggle room for failure. She pledged "to do everything I can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb."
Why not just say, "Yes, I pledge"? She can still try diplomatic approaches, including carrots and sticks, as she mentioned, but why not simply say Iran won't get the bomb under her watch?
Getting a straight answer from Hillary is consistently challenging, as other candidates noted -- hence the many "Hillary" references. Their "attacks" weren't only because Hillary leads the pack, but because she's cagey to a fault.
At times, Hillary's relationship to nuance borders on compulsion more than wisdom. If her husband triangulated, she pentagonates. She's been working so many sides for so long that she seems incapable of yes or no.
Hillary can handle the men just fine. What's giving her problems is Hillary.