MANCHESTER, N.H. (CN) – The Democratic Party roiled from within Saturday as the third presidential debate capped off a week marred by charges of exploitation and sabotage.
Just one day before the candidates gathered at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, Sen. Bernie Sanders slapped the Democratic National Committee with federal complaint for blocking his access to a crucial voter database.
The DNC lifted the restriction Saturday, but called the punishment fitting after a Sanders staffer exploited a temporary firewall glitch Wednesday to access Hillary Clinton’s voter-targeting data.
Sanders’ team meanwhile has accused the committee of trying to help Clinton clinch the race. Though Sanders fired the staffer last week, a DNC investigation into the breach remains ongoing.
“Not only do I apologize to Secretary Clinton, I want to apologize to my supporters,” Sanders told the audience of about 1,000 voters Saturday. “This is not the type of campaign that we run.”
Against this intrigue, the DNC has also come under fire by election watchers for scheduling half as many debates as the GOP organized for Republican contenders, and for selecting undesirable time slots.
Held on the last weekend before Christmas, Saturday’s debate also fell on the same night as a football matchup between the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys.
As though put through a camera obscura, the Vermont senator’s apology flipped the tables on a familiar scene.
In the first debate it was Sanders brushing off the need for an apology from Clinton over her email controversy.
Clinton on Saturday stressed the importance of moving on. “I don’t think the American people are all that interested in this,” the former secretary said to audience applause.
The goodwill ended there though, as the three candidates sparred over gun control, Wall Street and strategies to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley struggled to interject during the debate, at one point talking over the moderators as he continued to attack the two party frontrunners on the history of their gun-control views.
“ISIL videos, ISIL training videos are telling lone wolves the easiest way to buy a combat assault weapon in America is at a gun show,” O’Malley said.
In addition to claiming that Clinton has changed her position on guns each election cycle, O’Malley called out Sanders for votes against gun control.
“It’s because of the flip-flopping, political approach of Washington that both of my two colleagues on this stage have represented there for the last 40 years,” he said.
Quick to reel in the fiery former governor, Sanders urged O’Malley to “calm down a little bit, Martin,” and Clinton prodded him to “tell the truth.”
But it was just the beginning of heated questioning regarding domestic safety as Sanders and Clinton squared off about their priorities for Syria.
With cameras going to split screen, Sanders charged Clinton with being quick to favor regime change, including ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and pledged his support to defeating ISIL first.
Clinton stood firm on her belief that it is important, and possible, to remove Assad while simultaneously tackling ISIL.
When it comes to forming coalitions, “I know how hard that is,” Clinton said. “I have formed them.”
O’Malley drew the only boos of the night when he interrupted the discussion to offer a “different generation’s perspective.”
One issue all three presidential hopefuls agreed on was the danger of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. The Republican frontrunner’s name was the only one from that party to come up during the debate, as each candidate took swings.
With an eye toward the general election, Sanders reminded Trump supporters that their candidate “thinks lower wages are a good idea.”
Clinton roused the audience by offering the rising cost of college and drug prices as a debate “we need to take to the Republicans in the fall.”
While Sanders skipped the spin room following the debate, he did quickly address reporters near an exit to again reiterate his disgust at America’s lack of paid family leave.
Invoking FDR and LBJ during the debate, he spoke about the “good investment” represented by legislation supporting a three-month, paid family leave with a $1.61-a-week tax on the middle class.
Clinton promised to never raise taxes on those making under $250,000 in her plan for family leave as the two continued to highlight the differences in their health coverage and college affordability plans.
Having a “very good night,” in his own words, O’Malley voiced his belief he could still win the primary despite lagging in the polls.
“Very often in presidential politics, the candidate that emerges as a surprise on caucus night or here in the New Hampshire primary is rarely ever the candidate that people see coming in the December polls,” O’Malley told media in the spin room.
New Hampshire voters will head to the polls on Feb. 9 to cast their primary ballots, but not before the Democrats take the stage again on Jan. 17, a Sunday, in Charleston, S.C.
As a labor dispute continues at the local New Hampshire station, the DNC booted co-sponsor WMUR only a week before the debate, removing its scheduled moderator from the panel with ABC moderators David Muir and Martha Raddatz.
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