Hillary Clinton does well in first Democratic presidential debate | world | Hindustan Times
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Hillary Clinton does well in first Democratic presidential debate

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton and top rival Bernie Sanders finally squared off Tuesday in the party’s first debate of the 2016 campaign, with both singling out income inequality as the scourge of America.

world Updated: Oct 14, 2015 10:32 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times
US presidential elections,Hillary Clinton,Bernie Sanders
Democratic presidential candidate and US senator Bernie Sanders (L) listens as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton speaks during the first official Democratic candidates debate of the 2016 presidential campaign in Las Vegas, Nevada. (REUTERS Photo)

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton turned in a strong performance at the party’s first presidential debate on Tuesday defending her record, owning up mistakes and explaining her plans.

Clinton’s closest rival in polls so far, Senator Bernie Sanders, had a good night as well presenting himself, a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, as an anti-establishment outsider.

Joining Clinton and Sanders on stage in Las Vegas was a trio of low-polling candidates looking for a breakthrough moment: former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley; Jim Webb, a former navy secretary and US senator from Virginia, and former senator and governor Lincoln Chafee, the Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat from Rhode Island.

O’Malley, who was in a desperate need of a break-out moment in the race, impressed with clear, sharp positions on energy, climate change and banking reforms.

The clear winner, experts and commentators, agreed, however, was the level and nature of the debate itself — called “mature”, “adult debate” compared to two Republican debates so far.

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who had threatened to crash the debate by live-tweeting it, had a rather indifferent outing, shooting off spiteful put-downs he is famous for.

Clinton and Sanders clashed over US involvement in the Middle East, gun control and economic policy outlining competing visions for a party seeking to keep the White House for a third straight term.

At one point, two of the candidates rounded up on the moderator who was grilling Clinton on her use of private email servers to move along, and get on to other subjects of more importance. Sanders leapt to Clinton’s defence on the issue of her controversial email practices as secretary of state.

“The American people are sick and tired are hearing about your damn emails,” Sanders exclaimed as the crowd in Las Vegas roared with applause. A smiling Clinton reached over to shake his hand and said, “Thank you, Bernie.”

The hall erupted with perhaps the loudest applause.

Read | US polls: Now, Donald Trump towers over Democrats also

Tangling over policies

While the five candidates onstage took issue with each other, they also repeatedly sounded traditional Democratic themes - such as fighting income inequality - that are sure to carry over to the general election campaign against the Republicans.

First, the Democrats must choose their own candidate. And throughout most of the two-hour debate Clinton played the role of aggressor, an unexpected shift for the Democratic front-runner who had barely mentioned her rivals since launching her campaign six months ago.

Until now, Clinton and Sanders - who has emerged as her toughest competition - have circled each other cautiously and avoided personal attacks.

After the Vermont senator, a self-described democratic socialist, derided “a casino capitalist process by which so few have so much,” Clinton said it would be a “big mistake” for the US to turn its back on the system that built the American middle class.

Asked whether she thought Sanders, who has a mixed record on gun control legislation, had been tough enough on the issue, she said simply,” No, I do not.”

Sanders defended his gun control record, and called for better mental health services, stricter background checks and closing a loophole that exempts gun shows from background checks

The two also tangled over foreign policy, an issue where Clinton is often more hawkish than others in the Democratic Party. The former secretary of state reiterated her call for more robust US action to stop the Syrian civil war and defended her judgment on international issues, despite having voted for the 2002 invasion of Iraq.

Sanders called the Iraq war “the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of our country” and said he would not support sending American combat troops back to the Middle East to fight terrorism.

“Nobody does, Senator Sanders,” Clinton interjected.

To a question about her vote for the Iraq war, as senator, she said this came up many times during 2007-8 debates, and Obama made her his secretary of state despite it.

Also hanging over the debate: the lengthy deliberations of vice-president Joe Biden, who is weighing a late entry into the Democratic race. Debate host CNN kept an extra podium on standby just in case Biden decided to show up, but the vice-president instead stayed in Washington, where he was watching the debate at his residence.

For Democrats, Tuesday’s debate was an opportunity to steal attention from the drama in the Republican primary, where more than a dozen candidates are fighting to overtake billionaire Trump. The real estate mogul still made his presence known Tuesday night, sending a torrent of Twitter commentary on the Democrats’ performances.

“Sorry, there is no STAR on the stage tonight!” he wrote.

While the Republican primary has been roiled by the emotional debate over immigration, the Democratic candidates were largely united in their call for providing a path to legal status for the millions of people currently in the US illegally.

The party is counting on general election support from Hispanics, a group that overwhelmingly voted for President Obama in 2012.

‘Still standing’

For Clinton, the debate was a much-needed opportunity to focus on policy in addition to the controversy over her exclusive use of personal email and a private internet server during her tenure in the Obama administration. The email issue has shadowed her rollout of numerous policy positions and has hurt her standing with voters.

Clinton said her email use “wasn’t the best choice” and cast the issue as a politically motivated effort by Republicans to drive down her poll numbers. She highlighted comments from Republican representative Kevin McCarthy, who bragged about how a House committee investigating Clinton’s role in the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, had hurt her politically.

“I am still standing,” she said.

The former secretary of state has also faced criticism that she’s shifted her positions on trade, gay marriage and other issues to match the mood of voters - a charge she vigorously denied Tuesday.

“Like most human beings, I do absorb new information, I do look at what’s happening in the world,” Clinton said.

Pressed specifically on her newly announced opposition to a Pacific Rim trade deal she touted while serving in the Obama administration, Clinton said she had hoped to support it but ultimately decided it did not meet her standards.

For Democrats to stay in the White House, they will need voters to feel comfortable enough with Obama’s tenure to keep his party in charge. While Clinton has broken with Obama on trade and vowed to do more than the president on immigration and gun control, she demurred Tuesday when asked how her administration would differ from the president.

“Being the first woman president would be quite a change,” she said.

Unscripted Clinton

Clinton showed she had the most experience in this level of debating, having gone through a primary cycle in 2007-08 when she lost the party nomination to then senator Obama.

She looked confident without appearing condescending, a real worry for her campaign going into the debate, smiled often and looked ready to get into a skirmish when needed.

An impressed conservative commentator Laura Ingram tweeted, “You are seeing why the @HillaryClinton won’t be the easy target GOP hopefuls think she’ll be.”

Former Obama strategist David Axelrod, who is now a CNN analyst, said he thought Clinton, who has a reputation for practiced politically correct responses, looked “unscripted”.

Asked to choose from “progressive” and “moderate” to best describe herself, she replied, “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who knows how to get things done.”

Some commentators found that scripted. But not her one-word response to the moderator’s offer to respond to an attack on her credibility, “No”. She did not want to honour it with a response.

(With inputs from AP)