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Paris Attacks Alter Democratic Debate – And Maybe Entire Race

by Vaughn Ververs and Mark Murray /

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DES MOINES, Iowa – The terrorist attacks in Paris have dramatically changed the outlook and focus of Saturday night’s Democratic presidential debate. And they could very well alter a Democratic race largely defined by economic and social issues.

The debate, beginning at 9:00 pm ET and airing on CBS, will take place in the shadow of Friday's attacks, which killed at least 129 and left 352 others wounded according to French authorities. France has declared a state of emergency and ISIS has claimed responsibility for the deadliest attacks on the country since World War II.

And it's shifted the focus for tonight's discussion, according to the debate sponsors.

"Last night's attacks are a tragic example of the kind of challenges American presidents face in today's world and we intend to ask the candidates how they would confront the evolving threat of terrorism," said CBS News Washington Bureau Chief Chris Isham.

Isham said that moderators would still ask about a broad range of topics. "We will also ask about other issues, such as healthcare and the economy, but we felt that it was important, given what happened and given the severity of what happened, to refocus the questioning somewhat."

CBS Executive Editor Steve Capus Friday night tweeted that the terrorist attacks in Paris “require important questions for the candidates.”

That could benefit the sole Democratic candidate with extensive foreign policy and national security experience – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And it could hurt the two others without it – Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Indeed, top Clinton campaign strategists told NBC News that they expected a focus on the Paris attacks could very well put Sanders and O’Malley on their heels.

Sanders had been sharpening his attacks against Clinton -- suggesting that her controversial email practices are fair game and even appearing to question her character.

"If her email practices foiled public-records requests or compromised classified information, those are 'valid questions,'" Sanders told the Wall Street Journal this week. And noting some of Clinton's issue reversals -- like her newfound opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord -- Sanders told the paper that consistency on such issues "does speak to the character of a person."

Meanwhile, O’Malley, who remains stuck in the low single digits in most public polling, has been searching for a breakout moment -- something he didn’t get in the Democratic first debate.

Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris came after a series of incidents involving the fight against ISIS and the civil war in Syria.

The Oct. 31 downing of a plane en route to St. Petersburg, Russia after taking off from Egypt has raised concerns about airline security, as the British government and some congressional Republicans have said the crash was likely an act of terrorism. (U.S. government officials have not confirmed the plane's downing was terrorism, but also haven’t ruled out that possibility.)

On Friday morning, U.S. and British officials said they believed that an airstrike had killed Mohammed Emwazi, a member of ISIS who had beheaded Western hostages in videos that were seen all over the world. Later on Friday, there was a mass shooting in Paris, although many details about it remain unclear.

Thus far in the Democratic presidential race, national security and terrorism issues haven’t been a top focus for Democratic voters.

According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, just 4 percent of Democratic primary voters said that foreign policy and the Middle East is the top issue that will decide their vote, while just another 2 percent said terrorism was.

By contrast, 40 percent of Democratic voters said the economy was their top concern, 21 percent responded with social issues and 15 percent singled out Social Security and Medicare.

NBC News' Perry Bacon contributed to this report

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