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MANCHESTER, New Hampshire – Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were ready to make peace and move on to other issues Saturday after a data breach that upended the Democratic presidential primary 24 hours earlier threatened to overshadow the final debate of the year.
But the swift resolution of that issue didn’t keep sparks from flying as the top contenders for their party’s nomination clashed on regime change, gun control and more.
Clinton was commanding, regaining her stature as a formidable debater after a wobblier outing last month in Iowa. While generally gearing her remarks toward a general election contest with Republicans – stressing experience and electability – the former secretary of state came prepared with opposition research she deployed with aplomb against Sanders and Martin O’Malley when needed.
Sanders turned in his strongest debate performance yet, alternating between both anger and wry humor when appropriate, and ably laying out the substantive differences between himself and Clinton as he presented himself as the conscience of the progressive movement.
For O’Malley, a long shot mired in the single digits in polls, desperate times called for desperate measures. The former Maryland governor refused to let any second go to waste as he doggedly tried to create a breakout moment and knock some paint off the leaders. He repeatedly interjected himself between Clinton and Sanders, taking tough shots and both, and he sparred with moderators.
Sanders made his most aggressive case to date against Clinton’s more hawkish foreign policy, a key vulnerability of her 2008 presidential campaign, when her vote for the Iraq War drove liberals to rival Barack Obama. “Our differences are fairly deep,” Sanders said. “And I say this with due respect, but I worry that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be.”
The test case on their philosophical difference is Syria, where Sanders said ISIS should be the focus over removing dictator Bashar al Assad from power. “We have got to get our foreign policies and our priorities right,” he said, noting that it’s ISIS attacking the United States and France, and blowing up jetliners – not Assad.
Clinton fired back with a ready bit of data: “With all due respect, Sen. Sanders, you voted for regime change with respect to Libya,” she said.
Drawing on her four years as America’s top diplomat, Clinton suggested Sanders wasn’t being realistic. “When we look at these complex problems I wish it could be either,” she said.
Guns once again became a flashpoint between Clinton and Sanders, as they have throughout the campaign. It’s one of the few places where Clinton can outflank Sanders on his left, and she highlighted their differences with a backhanded compliment. “I am glad Sen. Sanders has really moved,” he said, once again recalling his past votes against gun control issues like the Brady handgun bill.
Even as he reiterated his call for new gun laws, Sanders said we live “in a country in which people chose to buy guns,” noting it was a “right.”
“It’s a divided country on guns,” he said, adding that he hoped to bridge the divide.
Throughout the debate, the candidates played to type. Clinton portrayed herself as a contender acceptable to everyone, while Sanders played to his base. Should corporate America love Hillary Clinton? moderator David Muir asked. “Everybody should,” she replied. “I want to be the candidate for the struggling, the striving and the successful.”
As for Sanders, would corporate America like him in the White House? “No, they won’t,” he said with a wry smile.
On taxes, Clinton navigated a middle path, pledging not to raises taxes on middle-class Americans – an issue far more likely to resonate with independent voters in a general election than Democratic voters in a primary.
At the same time, Sanders portrayed himself as the true progressive in the field. He argued Clinton’s tax promise went against what Franklin Roosevelt did when he created Social Security, what Lyndon Johnson did when he created Medicare and what many Democratic senators have advocated when it comes to pending paid family leave legislation, which would be funded by a small tax bump. Taxes can be “a pretty good investment,” Sanders said.
The candidates even levied their attacks on Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner and overall dominant figure in the 2016 contest, as a way to highlight their own world views. Clinton went right after Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric around Muslims and sought to tie other GOP presidential candidates to him. “He is becoming ISIS’ best recruiter,” Clinton said of Trump.
Sanders, meanwhile, sought to explain Trump’s mass appeal by explaining he preys on people’s economic anxiety. Trump, Sanders suggested, uses Mexicans and Muslims as scapegoats to distract struggling Americans from the real problem — which, Sanders said, is that people like Trump rig the system to make more money. “Meanwhile the rich get richer,” Sanders said.
Despite her strong performance, Clinton slipped up in at least two instances that Republicans are already moving to exploit.
“We now are now finally where need to be” on ISIS, she said, apparently trying to make a point that she had called for arming so-called moderate rebels in Syria before the Obama administration adopted the policy. The remark felt discordant coming just weeks after the terror group launched successful attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, and promptly drew an attacks from Jeb Bush and the Republican National Committee.
The other came when Clinton seemed to dismiss rising health care costs under Obamacare as “glitch,” which prompted a knock from Sen. Ted Cruz.
New Hampshire’s Feb. 9 primary has the potential to be the single most important contest in the Democratic race, and Sanders’ top official in the state has called it a “must-win.” Polling, which is notoriously difficult in the Granite State, has been volatile. But a recent CNN survey found Sanders 10 points ahead of Clinton, boosted by the state’s proximity to his home state of Vermont.
In their closing remarks, Sanders took an unusually personal approach, drawing on his family story.
Clinton, meanwhile, closed the debate with six works that drew the loudest applause of the entire night: “May the force be with you.”