DES MOINES, Iowa – Despite a somber start in honor of Friday’s terror attacks in Paris, the second Democratic presidential debate turned unexpectedly contentious on domestic issues here Saturday night.
The debate likely did little to fundamentally shakeup the status quo of the race, an outcome underdogs Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley were hoping for, with Hillary Clinton entering and leaving as the prohibitive frontrunner.
The candidates spent the first 35 minutes of the debate discussing terrorism and foreign policy in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, which left at least 129 people dead and hundreds more injured. Despite her strength, Clinton found herself on defense for much of this foreign policy portion, once again atoning for her vote for the Iraq War and trying to find a silver lining on the Libya intervention that toppled strongman Muammar Gaddafi but left the country in chaos.
But even as they challenged Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley belied the shallowness of their foreign policy experience, with Sanders playing the Iraq War card again and again and O’Malley acknowledging that governors don’t deal in international affairs. Later, they struggled to give an example of a crisis they faced that would prepare them for the pressure of the Oval Office (Clinton mentioned her involvement in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden).
But the political gravity of the Democratic Party quickly pulled the candidates away from Paris and back to domestic issues, which saw the most heated and substantive exchanges of the night. No one seemed unhappy to leave foreign policy in the rearview mirror -- especially Sanders, who awkwardly pivoted away from Paris to his “rigged economy” talking points just seconds into his opening statement.
It’s no surprise why. Just 2% of Democratic primary voters said that terrorism was their top concern in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, while another 4% picked foreign policy and the Middle East. The economy is by far the No. 1 issue.
And the debate stayed mostly on substance, with Clinton and Sanders engaging in a heated exchange on single-payer health care. Sanders once again absolved Clinton on the controversy over the private email server she used during her time as secretary of state, saying he wanted to focus on weightier issues. But he had no qualms about going after her relationship to Wall Street. “They expect to get something,” he said of her financial industry donors as his campaign reminded reporters that Citigroup and Goldman Sachs are among Clinton’s top donors of all time.
Clinton took offense at that, saying Sanders was trying to “impugn my integrity” in the tensest exchange between any two candidates of the 2016 Democratic primary yet.
And she caught flack both on and off the stage for defending her political contributions from financial institutions by saying she worked hard to rebuild lower Manhattan after 9/11. The CBS moderators asked Clinton whether the comment was appropriate and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called it a “new low” for Clinton.
It’s the only moment that may come back to haunt Clinton from the Saturday debate, and it was the one that drew the most reaction for any candidate Twitter, according to the social media company, which was a co-sponsor of the debate.
In the end, though, Clinton won by not losing. She clearly appeared more presidential, according to a focus group of 33 Iowa Democratic voters conducted by Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis. She was picked as the winner of the debate by 23 members, compared to 10 for Sanders -- but dominated him 31-2 on which candidate voters viewed as more electable.
Still, the debate leveled the playing field between Clinton and her two rivals, who seemed much more comfortable and in command after their first turn on the national debate stage in Las Vegas. While Clinton stood head and shoulders above the five-candidate field in the first debate, she faced a more even match with just two opponents in Des Moines and often found herself on defense from a double-fronted attack.
O’Malley especially outperformed expectations, which were at rock-bottom, likely buying a lease on life for a campaign running dangerously low on money.
The race is not over, they demonstrated, and it will continue feistier than ever as the candidates take their attacks from the stage to the campaign trail.