Sen. Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 wavered, stumbled and confused her facts in last Tuesday’s Democratic primary debate — and then tried to play the victim, online media mogul Arianna Huffington said in an exclusive interview with the News last Saturday.

Arriving in New Haven after a morning appearance on The Today Show, where she discussed the public uproar over Clinton’s debate performance, Huffington said Clinton’s campaign made improper reference to the candidate’s sex to strike back after Clinton was cornered by her Democratic rivals.

“Her campaign tried to do it because she had fumbled in the debate,” Huffington said. “Normally, she had been in command of the facts and the stage, and on Tuesday she contradicted herself, she was equivocating, she let herself be ruffled. So her campaign chose to play the gender card to deflect attention from criticism of her performance.”

During the interview, conducted over the phone after Huffington delivered a keynote address at the Women’s Leadership Initiative’s Women in Leadership Conference on Saturday, she said she is glad to see a woman come so close to winning the presidency. But she warned that Clinton’s campaign could actually be a setback for gender equality if she continues to mishandle allegations of sexism.

“It’s important to celebrate the moment without indulging in playing the gender card and whining and playing the victim when things don’t go your way,” Huffington said.

Huffington said Clinton’s vacillations during the debate illustrated her tendency to favor political expediency over principle — “to split the difference and try to be on both sides of an issue.” Huffington questioned whether Clinton could provide the bold leadership Huffington said the country needs.

“The equivocation is driven by the fear that if [politicians] take bold steps, they’re going to upset constituencies they need and they’re therefore going to reduce their chance of being reelected,” she said. “But very often some of the things that are most needed to move a nation or a country or a company forward require offending a segment of the population or upsetting someone.”

Women can be especially prone to balking in the face of opposition, Huffington said, because of a perceived tension between femininity and power.

“We limit ourselves with this concern that we are not going to be feminine and not going to be real women and still exercise this power,” she said. “This is something we have to overcome.”

Clinton may not be capable of galvanizing and inspiring the nation as Robert Kennedy once did, Huffington said. Illinois Senator Barack Obama initially seemed to have the potential for such leadership but — in what Huffington called “one of the big disappointments of modern politics” — has since lost that magic by running a cautious frontrunner campaign, she said.

“It’s critical for Obama to be the Obama of the [2004 Democratic] Convention, when he spoke passionately and boldly, and to bring those qualities that he has in abundance to the campaign and to not hold back from challenging Hillary Clinton,” she said. “It’s a primary, not a coronation.”

But despite panning both Democratic frontrunners, Huffington reserved her harshest words for the presidential candidates of her former party — the Republicans.

“There is a feeling that you’re dealing with Neanderthals when you have three of them raise their hands when they’re asked ‘how many of you don’t believe in evolution,’” she said. “You wonder how many of them would raise their hand if they were asked ‘how many of you don’t believe in gravity?’”

Huffington is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, one of the most widely read blogs. She was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2006.

Huffington’s columns are nationally syndicated, and she has authored 11 books, the most recent of which is entitled “On Becoming Fearless … in Love, Work and Life.”