Democratic debate: Clinton, Sanders clash on stage

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Martin O'Malley at the CNN Democratic Debate at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, Tuesday, October 13, 2015.

 

LAS VEGAS, NV – Hillary Clinton pushed back Tuesday on one of the central criticisms of her approach to politics: that she changes her positions based on political expediency.

In the first Democratic presidential debate of the campaign, Clinton faced questions about whether she’s consistent in her views after recently coming out in opposition to President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership deal — a package she supported when she was a member of the administration.

Clinton said that she has principles and values but has to “look at what is happening in the world” as she considers how to modify and shape her positions. She answered “no” when asked by CNN debate moderator Anderson Cooper whether she simply changes her political views according to the public’s mood at the moment. She said her views were rooted “in my values and experience.”

She quickly took a shots at progressive challenger Bernie Sanders, first for his political creed of democratic socialism.

Then Sanders defended his self-identified status as a Democratic socialist, which many commentators believe frames him as far too left wing to be able to win a general election. He said he wanted no part of the “casino capitalism” economy and railed against a system where the top 10 % in the country have more wealth than the bottom 90%. He went on to argue that his vision for politics was akin to Scandinavian nations with strong health care systems and social safety nets.

Clinton replied, “I love Denmark!” but argued that they were running for president of the United States of America and such economic policies would not work here.

The former secretary of state also slammed Sanders for his positions on guns. Clinton was asked whether Sanders had been tough enough on regulating firearms

“No, not at all,” Clinton said “This has gone on too long and it is time the entire country stand up against the NRA,” Clinton said.

But Sanders hit back, telling Clinton sharply that “all the shouting in the world is not going to do what I hope all of us want,” namely more restrictions on firearms.

The White House hopefuls are in Las Vegas at the Wynn hotel and casino for one of just six Democratic debates slated before the party chooses a nominee.

This showdown, sponsored by CNN and Facebook, offers an important opportunity for Clinton to pivot from a challenging summer, which saw her poll numbers tumble amid the controversy over her private email server while she served as secretary of state. Sanders, meanwhile, is seeking to appeal to a wider audience of Democrats beyond those who have flocked in the thousands to his events in early-voting states such as Iowa, where he is polling just behind Clinton, and in New Hampshire, where he is leading in several surveys.

Clinton holds a commanding lead nationally despite Sanders’ strong performance in the early states.

Three other candidates — former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — are on stage with Clinton and Sanders. Their campaigns are languishing in the single digits, making it vital for them to use the debate to create the buzz needed to keep going.

In his opening statement, Chafee seemed to take a clear shot at Clinton and her struggles to overcome the email controversy, saying that in all his years of public service, he had shown “high ethical standards” and had not been involved in any scandals.

O’Malley warned of a deep crisis of “economic injustice that threatens to tear our country apart.”

Republicans have already held two fiery debates dominated by the presence of Donald Trump. The billionaire businessman wasn’t on stage Tuesday, but will still have a major role in the Democratic debate as the candidates are sure to blast him.

Trump, meanwhile, is live-tweeting during what he predicted would be a “very boring” debate, which could create an unwelcome distraction for candidates trying to get their message out.

He started tweeting before the debate even began, bemoaning the fact that three lower-polling candidates will get so much time.

“But who knows, maybe a star will be born (unlikely),” he wrote. “We will all have fun and hopefully learn something tonight. I will shoot straight and call it as I see it, both the good and the bad. Enjoy!”

The candidates were behind five debate podiums — but there could have been six.

Vice President Joe Biden is still agonizing over whether to jump into the race even at this late stage and spent the weekend going over his options with his family in Delaware. But he didn’t announce a decision in time to join the debate.

Sanders was joined at the debate by his wife, Jane, and two of his children, Levy and David.

Former President Bill Clinton planned to watch his wife’s performance on television, though he did arrive in Las Vegas on Monday with the former secretary of state.

And in a reminder of the stakes facing Democrats desperate to hold the White House, the crowd was shown a taped message from President Barack Obama before the debate began.

The President recalled the hard-fought primary in 2008, and the video highlighted his legacy, including health care reform and the push for same-sex marriage.

“We are going to have to fight just as hard in this election, as we did in the last two … that is why I am still fired up and I am still ready to go,” Obama said, repeating a 2008 campaign mantra.