WASHINGTON (AFP) — Hillary Clinton has a simple goal in Thursday's Democratic presidential debate in the gamblers paradise of Las Vegas -- restore the aura of invincibility around her under-fire campaign.
The party pace-setter goes into the televised clash hoping to swat away attacks from top rivals John Edwards and Barack Obama, after her uncharacteristic stumbles in the previous Democratic debate two weeks ago.
"I am not saying this is a defining moment for the campaign, but it is a pretty important moment to see how she can respond after being hit so hard," said Professor Joseph Valenzano of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which is co-hosting the debate with CNN and the state's Democratic Party.
The Democratic race is hitting fever pitch 50 days before crucial leadoff contests in Iowa, which analysts say could crown Clinton as the de-facto nominee, or anoint Obama or Edwards as a genuine threat.
Clinton stumbled in the previous debate in Philadelphia, over whether illegal immigrants should be awarded drivers licenses, and faced a wave of subsequent assaults from rivals who had failed to land a glove on her all year.
Obama and Edwards painted her as slick and claimed she dodged straight questions, hoping to slow her down, and take a chunk out of her lead in every major opinion poll.
Claims that Clinton aides had planted questions at her campaign events further fed the media beast and provoked the Clinton campaign's first serious wobbles.
Aides to the former first lady are accusing her rivals of "piling on" negative attacks to mask their own travails.
They have been particularly harsh on Obama, a freshman Illinois Senator, accusing him of devaluing his "politics of hope" rhetoric for gutter politics.
"Our opponents are on the attack. But while they're attacking Hillary, she's attacking the problems facing America," Clinton's campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle said in a fundraising email to supporters on Tuesday.
The appeal raked in 370,000 dollars in the first five hours, with a goal of reaching one million dollars before the debate.
Obama is trying to capitalize on his fiery speech at a raucous dinner of 9,000 Democratic activists in Iowa on Saturday night, at which he drew sharp lines between himself and Clinton.
His campaign manager David Plouffe argued in a memo Tuesday Obama was hitting his stride just at the right time.
"Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are beginning to focus on the race more intently and are increasingly making decisions," Plouffe wrote.
"And as they do, Senator Obama is profiting at Senator Clinton's expense."
Obama is treading a thin line -- turning up the heat on Clinton, but trying to avoid coming across as too negative -- and leaving the harshest attacks to Edwards, the former Democratic vice presidential nominee.
"Despite the egging on of the national press, I'm not interested in kneecapping Hillary Clinton," Obama said on Monday in New Hampshire, according to the Manchester Union leader newspaper.
On Thursday, Obama is likely to zero in on foreign policy, especially over her Senate votes to authorize war in Iraq, and for a resolution describing Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terror organization.
"When I'm your nominee, my opponent won't be able to say that I supported this war in Iraq, or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran," he said on Saturday in Iowa.
But Clinton hits back that Obama is too inexperienced to be president.
"Change is just a word if you don't have the strength and experience to make it happen," she told Iowa Democrats.
"We must nominate a nominee who has been tested, and a president who is ready to lead on day one," Clinton said.
Though Clinton still enjoys a strong lead among Democratic challengers, several recent polls suggest the race may be narrowing.
She had held a 30-point advantage over Obama, but saw that lead slip to 19 percent, in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation national survey.
Two polls in the key state of New Hampshire, which traditionally holds the first presidential primary contest, showed Clinton still leading, but edging back towards the field.
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