Elections

Sanders apologizes to Clinton as Democrats clash in debate

Bernie Sanders, left, speaks with Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015.
Bernie Sanders, left, speaks with Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015. AP

Bernie Sanders took the extraordinary step of apologizing to Hillary Clinton during their presidential debate Saturday, calming an increasingly tense dispute over the Sanders’ campaign’s unauthorized access to her campaign’s voter files.

The unusual apology punctuated a high-stakes face-off less than two months before Democrats start voting for their nominee in Iowa and then New Hampshire. While Clinton maintains a lead nationally, Sanders is strong in New Hampshire, and needed to assure often idealistic supporters he was not deliberately engaging in dirty tricks.

Beyond the brouhaha over data spying, security dominated the debate, their first since a terrorist couple killed 14 people in San Bernadino, California.

The three candidates demonstrated sharp differences with Republicans, particularly Donald Trump, showing sympathy for allowing some Syrian refugees into this country, decrying blanket suspicion of Muslims, and endorsing curbs on gun ownership.

Main Takeaway

Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, had two hurdles to overcome Saturday: He had to put the controversy over his campaign’s access to Clinton’s data behind him, and needed to convince more mainstream voters he’s capable of being president.

The database furor cooled quickly. Sanders was contrite. Clinton, the former Secretary of State, urged moving on.

I very much appreciate that comment, Bernie. It really is important that we go forward on this

Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders after he apologized

Sanders was less convincing as a potential president. With terrorism domestic and otherwise rising quickly as a national concern, Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley disagreed over gun control, with O’Malley charging Sanders was too sympathetic to gun owners.

Clinton’s task was to tower over her rivals with a command of issues and self-confidence without lapsing into arrogance. On issue after issue, she wouldn’t be rattled. Sanders tried, saying she was too prone to support regime change in other countries. Clinton countered that Sanders, too, had supported regime change in Libya.

Data Breach

Sanders found himself immediately explaining his campaign staff’s look at Clinton’s voter data through a Democratic National Committee database. He conceded his staff “did the wrong thing,” but blasted the DNC for moving Friday to cut off his campaign’s access to even its own information on the database.

He called the DNC move an “egregious act.” The DNC restored access early Saturday after the Sanders campaign went to federal court, then agreed to provide information to the party about the incident.

Pressed on whether his campaign had stolen data, Sanders apologized to Clinton and to his supporters. “This is not the type of campaign that I run and if I find anybody else involved in this, they will also be fired, ” he promised. Clinton, who had been staring icily at Sanders as he spoke, refrained from criticizing her rival, saying that the campaigns should move on.

Guns

The candidates clashed heatedly and repeatedly over gun control measures, with O’Malley interrupting the moderators to accuse Sanders of being weak on gun control and Clinton changing her position. Clinton has sought to underscore differences with Sanders on gun control. Sanders was ready, saying he backed eliminating the gun show loophole and strengthening instant background checks.

“Coming from a state that has virtually no gun control,” he said, he would work to introduce more gun safety measures.

O’Malley interjected that he was the only candidate on the stage to approve comprehensive gun legislation and accused Sanders of voting against key gun control measures. And Clinton, he said “changes her position every election season.”

His rivals chafed at O’Malley’s criticisms.

“Calm down a little bit, Martin,” Sanders said.

“Let’s tell the truth, Martin,” Clinton added.

Sanders leads Clinton, 48 percent to 43.8 percent, in New Hampshire, according to the latest RealClearPolitics poll average.

Trump

The three Democrats criticized Republicans, but the only one they mentioned was Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner.

O’Malley referenced Trump in his opening remarks, saying the U.S. will only defeat the Islamic State if it does not “surrender our American values to racists, must never surrender to the fascist pleas of billionaires with big mouths.” Clinton criticized Trump’s call to bar Muslims from entering this country.

“Donald Trump is becoming ISIS’s best recruiter,” she said. “They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”

Sanders assailed Trump for his economic stance, saying he “thinks lower wages are a good idea. I believe we must stand together. We can not be divided by race or religion.”

Mr. Trump has a great capacity to use bluster and bigotry to inflame people and to make think there are easy answers to very complex questions

Clinton on Trump’s plan to bar Muslims from entering this country

Foreign Policy

The three sparred sharply over foreign policy, with Sanders attacking Clinton’s vote for the war in Iraq and suggesting she was too willing to topple dictators, often leaving a vacuum for militant groups such as the Islamic State.

“The United States is not the policeman of the world,” he said.

Clinton countered that Sanders had voted to overthrow Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. “You voted for regime change with respect to Libya,” Clinton said.

Clinton offered a lengthy defense of Libya policy. “If the United States does not lead, there is not another leader, there is a vacuum,” she said. “And we have to lead if we’re going to be successful.”

Top Quotes

“Yes, I apologize. Not only do I apologize to Secretary Clinton, and I hope we can work together on an independent investigation from day one, I want to apologize to my supporters.” Sanders to Clinton, discussing his staff’s look at her campaign’s voter data.

”We should move on, because I don’t think the American people are all that interested in this.” Clinton to Sanders after accepting his apology.

“We must never surrender ... to terrorists, must never surrender our Americans values to racists, must never surrender to the fascist pleas of billionaires with big mouths.” O’Malley, criticizing Trump.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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