WASHINGTON (TIP): Hillary Rodham Clinton, seeking to halt the momentum of her insurgent challenger, Sen Bernie Sanders of Vermont, aggressively questioned his values, positions and voting history on Tuesday night in the first Democratic presidential debate, turning a showdown that had been expected to scrutinize her character into a forceful critique of his record.
In a series of sometimes biting exchanges, Clinton declared that Sanders was mistaken in his handling of crucial votes on gun control and misguided in his grasp of the essentialness of capitalism to the American identity. Mocking Sanders’ admiration for the health care system of Denmark, she interrupted a moderator to offer a stinging assessment of his logic, suggesting he was unprepared to grapple with the realities of governing a superpower.
“We are not Denmark,” Clinton said, adding, “We are the United States of America.”
The crowd erupted in applause.
A few moments later, Clinton took aim at what may be Sanders’ greatest vulnerability with the Democratic left, asking why he had voted to shield gun-makers and dealers from liability lawsuits. Sanders, who linked his record on gun control to his representation of a rural state, called the bill “large and complicated.”
“I was in the Senate at the same time,” Clinton replied. “It wasn’t that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward.”
Asked if Sanders had been tough enough on guns during nearly a decade in the Senate, Clinton offered a sharp reply: “No, not at all.”
“I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence,” she said. “This has gone on too long, and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA.”
It was a dominant performance that showcased Clinton’s political arsenal: a long record of appearances in presidential debates, intense and diligent preparation, and a nimbleness and humor largely lacking in her male counterparts. She let no opportunity pass her by. When Sanders described the conflict in Syria as “a quagmire within a quagmire” but said he did not support sending U.S. ground troops there, Clinton interjected energetically: “Nobody does. Nobody does, Senator Sanders.”
For Sanders, the gathering in Las Vegas provided an evening of unexpectedly forceful challenges, both from Clinton and from the moderator, Anderson Cooper of CNN. At times, he seemed somewhat exasperated and unsure about how to match Clinton’s agility. A memorable moment came when he sought to shield Clinton from criticism of her email practices.
“Let me say something that may not be great politics,” he said. “But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”
Clinton flashed a wide smile and shook her rival’s hand. “Thank you,” she said, setting off huge applause in the auditorium.
Sanders regained his footing when the debate turned to one of his signature issues: Wall Street and its excesses.