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Feisty Democratic Debate Puts Spotlight On Clinton And Sanders

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on stage at the presidential debate Tuesday.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on stage at the presidential debate Tuesday.

This post was updated at 11:15 p.m.

After two rollicking Republican debates, the Democrats' first face-off delivered punches but was policy-focused and far more civil.

Compared to the crowded GOP debates, the stage this evening in Las Vegas seemed bare. Just five Democrats faced off: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

Clinton was pressed early on about her late-decisions to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the Keystone pipeline. Meanwhile, Sanders — who has wowed huge crowds with his calls for economic equality — saw his weaknesses exposed on guns and foreign policy.

Overall, both held their own though and neither suffered a misstep. Clinton came out strong early on, reminding voters about the historic nature of her candidacy, embracing her gender in a way she was hesitant to do eight years ago.

Sanders shone when passionately talking about economic inequality and why he's a Democratic socialist; he even gave Clinton some cover, defending her over the email server controversy.

O'Malley pressed Sanders on gun control and Clinton on Wall Street reforms, but the focus — and most of the speaking time — went to the top two candidates.

Both Webb and Chafee struggled. Webb spent most of the time complaining he wasn't getting enough time, and Chafee — who spoke for just nine minutes during the two-hour debate — tried to lob some hits at Clinton but faced scrutiny over his own Senate voting record and past as a Republican.

Our live blog of the debate is below.

10:55 p.m. Thankfully, there are no fluff, "fun" questions for the final question in the debate. Instead, CNN asks what enemy they're most proud of making. For Chafee, it's the coal lobby. O'Malley emphatically says it's the NRA. Clinton ticks off insurance companies and the Iranians before smiling and saying the Republicans. Sanders says Wall Street and pharmaceutical industries. Webb, with a sly smile, says the Vietnam soldier who threw a grenade and injured him, but "he's not around anymore."

10:46 p.m. Here's one thing Clinton says she isn't ready to take a position on — marijuana legalization, though she says she supports medical marijuana. Sanders says he would vote yes on legalization that's on the ballot in Nevada.

10:44 p.m Democrats also sound in one accord in calling for paid family leave. Clinton knocks down GOP arguments that imposing such requirements would be big government, and gets big applause when she says Republicans are OK with big government when it means taking away Planned Parenthood funding and abortion restrictions. Sanders also has a passionate defense of the issue, saying that the U.S. should join other developed countries in providing it.

10:36 p.m. One of the toughest things for Clinton this election cycle is how to argue she's a fresh face in an election cycle where the electorate is clamoring for outsiders. She reiterates the historical nature of her candidacy: "I can't think of anything more outsider than being the first woman president," and says, "I'm certainly not campaigning to be president because my last name is Clinton." Sanders reminds voters he's not taking any corporate money and doesn't have a superPAC, making him the true outsider in the race.

10:23 p.m. Sanders sounds a lot like Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul on the NSA, saying he doesn't believe the government should be collecting phone call and email data — he also voted against Patriot Act renewal.

On Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle-blower, both Clinton and O'Malley say he should face prosecution, but Sanders says he provided a valuable role in alerting Americans to NSA spying. Chafee sounds the most liberal on Snowden though, saying he should be allowed to come home and shouldn't face prosecution.

10:19 p.m. Democrats are mostly in lockstep in pushing for immigration reform and allowing illegal immigrants to receive Obamacare. Clinton sounds like she's in general election mode though, noting the difference in tone from Republicans in their debates.

10:09 p.m. Neither Webb nor Chafee are doing themselves any favors tonight as to why they should even be on the debate stage. Webb keeps using much of his time to argue that he hasn't gotten enough time.

And Chafee has a damaging comment when pressed as to why he voted against banking regulations — says he had just gotten to the Senate after being appointed after his dad's death and didn't understand it. Not helping his case at all.

9:58 p.m. On the economy, both Sanders and O'Malley try to draw distinctions on Wall Street reform by hitting Clinton — she's literally facing it from both sides as she's sandwiched between them. O'Malley says why he didn't endorse Clinton again — he wants to reinstate Glass-Stegall Act, which would break up many Wall Street banks. Sanders, too, takes a much tougher tone on Wall Street reform — "We have got to break them up!" This is his bread and butter, and it shows.

9:49 p.m. It took 45 minutes for Clinton's email scandal to come up, and she has new ammunition thanks to GOP House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's slip suggesting that the Benghazi House Committee was for partisan gain. "What I did was allowed by the State Department, but it wasn't the best choice."

Sanders, in a surprise move and with perhaps the line of the night, has Clinton's back and says we should move on from the issue. "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!" Clinton smiles and they shake hands, and he gets huge applause and a standing ovation. Chafee doesn't agree and reiterates it's a question of credibility.

9:40 p.m. Beat up on Bernie night continues when Anderson asks Webb — the only veteran on stage — whether or not Sanders should be disqualified as being commander in chief because he asked for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. Webb demures, but Sanders' argument is that he's changed since then — "I'm not a pacifist. ... I am prepared to take this country to war."

9:37 p.m. Sanders shines when he's talking about economic policy, but he's struggling on foreign policy tonight. He doesn't look comfortable at all when discussing it and whether or not Clinton should have seen the Benghazi attack coming.

9:31 p.m. When O'Malley joins in criticizing Clinton over her Iraq War vote, here's her sharp retort: "I was very pleased when Governor O'Malley endorsed me in 2008."

9:25 p.m. It's Chafee — the former Republican — who's trying to score points by going after Clinton. On foreign policy, he is trying to position himself to her left, especially on the Iraq War. Reiterating that he was the only Republican to vote against the war, he again says Clinton should be disqualified for her vote to authorize it: "There was no real evidence of WMD in Iraq. I know because I did my homework."

But Clinton has a good retort — she was criticized by Obama the same way in 2008, but he turned around and picked her as his secretary of state.

9:18 p.m. When the debate turns to gun control, it's evident just how much of a problem this is for Sanders. He tries to explain why he voted against allowing lawsuits for gun manufacturers and against the Brady Bill. But it's Clinton who perhaps lands the best shot, not missing a beat when jumping in that Sanders isn't tough enough on guns. "I was in the Senate at the same time and I voted no. It wasn't that complicated." O'Malley joins in in criticizing Sanders — he probably has most progressive policy on guns.

It's gang-up on Sanders time on guns; he responds by saying rural America (like Vermont, which he represents) and that there needs to be consensus and not shouting. His one ally is Webb, who has been conservative on guns and says people should have a right to defend themselves. Webb is far more conservative than Sanders on guns, though.

9:06 p.m. Sanders is also pressed on his Achilles' heel: whether or not a self-described socialist can win a national election (which polling shows can't happen). He says he only needs to define what a socialist is — that it's "immoral and wrong" that the vast majority of wealth is concentrated at the top earners.

CNN also puts the question to other candidates; no one raises their hand to indicate that they're also a socialist, but Clinton uses it to point to the success of small businesses as critical to a capitalistic society.

9:03 p.m. First out of the gate, CNN debate moderator Anderson Cooper goes there, asking Clinton, "Will you say anything to get elected?" when pressing her on her positions on gay marriage, TPP and the Keystone pipeline.

Clinton says the trade deal — which she once advocated for at State — has changed since she called it the gold standard.

And here's another example of the influence Sanders has on the race — when asked if she is a progressive or a moderate, Clinton replies, "I'm a progressive, but I'm a progressive who likes to get things done." You can't imagine her embracing that eight years ago.

8:58 p.m. Clinton's opening statement reflects the softer tone her campaign is trying to underscore — and is very different than her 2008 debates. She points to her granddaughter Charlotte, but also recalls her own grandparents and how her mother struggled. Her declaration that "it's about time we had paid family leave for American families and joined the rest of the world" gets big applause. As does her hope that fathers can tell their daughters that "Yes, you can grow up to be president." She's embracing her gender in a way she didn't eight years ago.

8:56 p.m. Sanders' opening statement — in which he was almost yelling — sticks closely to his stump speech and hits some of his most popular points: decrying money in politics, warning of climate changing and pushing for economic equality.

8:54 p.m. O'Malley is presenting himself as a happy populist. He's not blaming President Obama for the continued economic woes, saying, "We elected a president not a magician."

8:50 p.m. Webb's most noticeable point is that he asserts he was one of the first to push for a pivot to Asia — currently one of President Obama's top foreign policy pushes. He also ticked off his children — and almost forgot one of his daughters.

8:48 p.m. After many commercials and pre-game analysis, the debate finally begins. Chafee is first out of the gate with his opening statement, saying he's the only one who's been a mayor, governor and senator.

But then, he throws down a burn: "I'm proud that in over 30 years in public life, I have had no scandals," a very not-subtle jab at Clinton and her husband's tenure in the White House.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.