DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – With France declaring war Saturday in the wake of terrorist attacks, foreign policy was an unavoidable focus of the debates for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Though billed by host CBS News as focusing on the U.S. economy and income inequality, Hillary Clinton scored points right from the start by exhibiting her command and experience as former secretary of the U.S. State Department.
“This election is not only about electing a president,” Clinton said in an opening statement that focused on global security. “It’s also about choosing our next commander-in-chief. Our country deserves no less. It cannot be an American fight. We will support those who take the fight to ISIS.”
Word going around the spin room in the hours before the debate was that the Bernie Sanders campaign had jockeyed unsuccessfully to avoid a greater shift toward foreign policy.
In his opening statement, Sanders expressed disgust for the Paris attacks that left 129 people dead Friday but quickly pivoted to his prepared remarks on income inequality.
Meanwhile both Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley dedicated their entire opening statements to the attacks.
The opening focus on terrorism was a big missed opportunity for Sanders, whose campaign had to be looking forward to an evening focused on wage inequality and Wall Street regulation, the issues on which Sen. Sanders best connects to voters. With the focus of the first 38 minutes diverted to foreign policy and terrorism, Sanders struggled to score as many points as did Clinton and O’Malley, who turned in a surprisingly strong performance.
That the evening occurred at all was uncertain after Friday’s tragic events put the Western world on high alert. Heightened security at Drake University on Saturday included barricaded parts of the campus off to both foot and car traffic, but none of the measures seemed extraordinary.
With the region basking in unseasonably warm and sunny weather, Clinton’s team arrived at the campus still running strong from the Oct. 13 debate in Las Vegas and from her sturdy performance during the much-publicized House committee hearings on Benghazi.
The scene outside the debate hall was about what you’d expect from a pleasant and somewhat sleepy Midwestern college campus on an autumn Saturday.
Sanders fans enjoyed a fiery speech by activist Cornel West from the back of a truck, but a raucous gathering of O’Malley supporters, enlivened with bullhorns and cheers cribbed from the American Outlaw soccer fan club, seemed to give the former governor a much-needed boost.
O’Malley has consistently polled in the single-digits, but his strong performance during the two-hour debate Saturday could changed should earn him some support.
Moderator John Dickerson cut off O’Malley often, but the candidate was forceful and commanding at times, much more than in last month’s debate, and he received loud applause on several occasions.
“This actually is America’s fight. It cannot be solely America’s fight,” O’Malley said early on, making hay while redirecting a pre-prepared Clinton sound byte on how to fight the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks earlier in the day.
“America is best when we are actually standing up to the evil in this world,” O’Malley added. “The great failing of these last 10 to 15 years has been our failing of human intelligence on the ground. Our role in the world is not to roam the globe looking for new dictators to topple. Our role in the world is to make ourselves a beacon of hope. Make ourselves stronger at home, but also our role in the world, yes, is to confront evil when it rises.”
O’Malley’s biggest moments came when he called GOP candidate Donald Trump an “immigration-bashing carnival barker.”
Challenging opponents of immigration reform, O’Malley said: “The truth of the matter is, net immigration from Mexico last year was zero. Fact-check me. Go ahead. Check it out.”
An experienced executive himself, the former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland (and rumored inspiration for “The Wire’s” Tommy Carcetti) alternated between shows of strength and effective personal anecdotes, such as when he provided a personal example of how the rising cost of college tuition has challenged his family.
“We were proud of them on graduation day, but we’re going to be proud of them every month for the rest of our natural lives,” O’Malley said. “It doesn’t need to be that way.”
While there wasn’t a ton of disagreement between the candidates on policy issues, and not many attacks on GOP candidates beyond a few references to Trump, one of the most contentious moments arose when Dickerson focused on influence by campaign donors.
Clinton’s campaign in particular has benefited from large donations by Wall Street bankers.
“Wait a minute, [Sen. Sanders] has basically used his answer to impugn my integrity,” Clinton responded during a rousing moment.
In perhaps the most notable gaffe of the evening, Clinton followed up on that remark by seemingly using the 2001 World Trade Center attacks to justify her acceptance of Wall Street donations.
“I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked,” she said. “We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked out country.”
The outrage Clinton’s statement sparked with viewers came to a head when co-moderator Nancy Cordes of CBS News shared the reaction from Twitter.
“I’ve never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now,” one viewer tweeted.
Clinton apologized for any misconception, but didn’t back away from the comment.
“I’m sorry that whoever tweeted that had that impression because I worked closely with New Yorkers after 9/11 for my entire first term to rebuild,” Clinton said. “So, yes, I did know people. I’ve had a lot of folks give me donations from all kinds of backgrounds say, I don’t agree with you on everything, but I like what you do. I like how you stand up. I’m going to support you, and I think that is absolutely appropriate.”
The reply generated applause from the audience, but it seems fairly likely that this will become a recurring line of attack Clinton will have to face.
Another question that seemed to hit a nerve asked where to set the minimum wage.
Clinton stuck to a proposed $12 limit.
That the former secretary has no intention of resting on her sizable lead was clear, attacking the proposed policies of her opponents as often as they attacked her.
Placed center-stage and with the continued focus of the moderators, Clinton was playful and engaging throughout the evening. In addition to cornering Sanders on gun regulation, Clinton provided an impish reply when Dickerson asked about whether Democrats should “worry about another shoe dropping,” in reference to protracted scandals over her private email server and the fatal 2012 attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya.
“I think after 11 hours, that’s pretty clear,” Clinton said, invoking the highly politicized House hearings that were a big win for her campaign last month.
A main takeaway among the crowd after the debate concluded was undoubtedly the civility with which the candidates interacted – a stark contrast to the bombast and personal attacks of their Republican counterparts during recent GOP debates.
“Face the Nation” host John Dickerson moderated the debate from Drake University’s Sheslow Auditorium, along with his CBS News colleague Nancy Cordes and two local journalists, KCCI’s Kevin Cooney and the Des Moines Register’s Kathie O’Bradovich.
The Democrats will next meet to debate on Dec. 19 in Manchester, N.H., another Saturday night, and a few days after the Republicans debate on Dec. 15 in Las Vegas.
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