Hillary Clinton tried to convince potential voters they can trust her despite her changing positions on major issues. Bernie Sanders tried to make his message about the underpaid, overworked worker appealing to more Americans. And three lesser-known rivals worked desperately to get attention.
The first Democratic presidential debate Tuesday featured sharp exchanges on issues such as guns, the Iraq war, even socialism. Clinton was forceful throughout, taking on Sanders directly for the first time in an effort to stem her drop in polls and his surprise momentum as her main challenger.
In her first opportunity to share the stage with her four Democratic rivals, Clinton often appeared commanding.
She was prepared on myriad issues – foreign and domestic – from the top threat to the United States to gun control to the benefits of capitalism. She distinguished herself from Sanders on at least two issues, regulating guns and reining in Wall Street. She kept her cool against attacks and aggressively pushed back against her opponents.
And once again, she took responsibility for using a personal email account through a private server at her New York home while secretary of state after a slew of criticism.
Sanders didn’t make any overt mistakes, but he did not appear to expand his breadth of supporters. He even supported Clinton at one point, saying the controversy over her emails is no issue at all. “Enough of the emails,” he said. “Let’s talk about the real issues.”
The trio of others – former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb – tried attacking them, but nothing they did was likely to break them into the top tier.
Chafee: The little financed, little known former senator and governor sought to make a name for himself by coming out swinging, touting 30 years of public service and asserting that he’d had “no scandals” – presumably a reference to Clinton. But the soft-spoken politician was mostly overshadowed on the stage, and the former Republican’s insistence that he was a “block of granite” when it comes to his political beliefs fell flat.
Clinton: A seasoned debater, Clinton more held her own in the first debate. She defended herself against attacks, pushed back on what she described as Sanders’ weak record on gun control and won applause when she mentioned that O’Malley backed her for president in 2008. She worked to show she can relate to working American families after years of being criticized as an out-of-touch Washington insider by speaking about her factor worker grandfather and 1-year-old granddaughter.
O’Malley: The debate was unlikely to be the game-changer he had hoped for. He presented himself as a progressive with a record of getting things done as Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor as he introduced himself to potential voters in his largest audience to date in the campaign. But even a solid performance is unlikely to alter the race because the two front-runners, Clinton and Sanders, did not make any huge gaffes. O’Malley has spent millions of dollars and months building a campaign, but he has failed to get any traction in the early states or even his own state.
Sanders: The fiery Sanders opened with a clarion call for taking back government “from a handful of billionaires,” but his clash with Clinton over whether or not he is a capitalist may have underscored a problem he may have expanding beyond his activist base and convincing skeptical Democrats that he could be the party’s standard-bearer. Sanders, who needs to show he could be president, appeared uneasy when the debate veered into foreign policy, at one point asserting that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “already regretting his invasion of Crimea.” But he gained steam when the debate moved back into regulating Wall Street.
Webb: The former secretary of the Navy struggled for attention, at one point telling moderator Anderson Cooper he’d been “waiting for 10 minutes” to make a point. He sought to stress his experience on military issues and foreign policy.
Clinton: “I have been very consistent. Over the course of my entire life, I have always fought for the same values and principles, but, like most human beings, including those of us who run for office, I do absorb new information. I do look at what’s happening in the world.”
Sanders: “Congress does not regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress.”
O’Malley: “Look, none of this is easy. None of us has all the answers. But together as a city, we saved a lot of lives. It was about leadership. It was about principle. And it was about bringing people together.”
In one of the most memorable moments, Sanders and Clinton clashed over socialism and capitalism.
Sanders, the self-described “democratic socialist,” refused to call himself a capitalist.
“Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.”
Clinton agreed that Sanders is right about the gap between rich and poor.
“But we are not Denmark,” she said. “We are the United States of America. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system. . . . We would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history.”
Despite a Republican-led congressional inquiry into Clinton’s role in the fatal 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that will include an appearance on Capitol Hill next week, the issue did not evoke much criticism from her Democratic rivals. Candidates only mentioned Benghazi when asked by a questioner.