LAS VEGAS — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and three more Democratic presidential hopefuls met Tuesday night at the Wynn Las Vegas resort and casino for the party’s first prime-time debate.
1. Clinton goes on offense against Sanders
Buffeted by an email controversy and sagging poll numbers, Clinton was on defense for much of the summer. But from the first moments of the debate, Clinton went on offense against Sanders, who has emerged as her chief rival for the Democratic nomination.
When Sanders said the U.S. should look to countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway on the economy, Clinton replied that while the U.S. sometimes needs to “save capitalism from itself,” America was much different.
“We are not Denmark. I love Denmark, but we are the United States of America,” Clinton said.
Clinton later said the Vermont senator wasn’t tough enough “at all” on gun violence in the Senate and noted he had opposed the 1993 Brady bill and supported 2005 legislation to give gun manufacturers immunity from lawsuits. Sanders said it was a “large and complicated bill,” but Clinton wasn’t buying it.
“It wasn’t that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me,” Clinton said.
2. Candidates step past question of Clinton’s emails
Clinton had to know she would be pressed during the debate about her use of a private email account and server during her tenure as secretary of state. And she said, again, she had made a mistake in doing so.
But she had to be pleased that the moment moved on to laughs — and a handshake with Sanders.
In perhaps the most memorable exchange of the debate, Sanders dismissed the issue as one not worth voters’ time with a cranky one-liner.
“Let me say something that may not be great politics,” Sanders 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 and the audience cheered, and she and Sanders smiled and shook hands. “Thank you, Bernie,” she said.
CNN moderator Anderson Cooper tried to refocus the candidates on the matter, but that only gave Clinton the chance to slam the GOP-led congressional committee investigating the matter as “basically an arm of the Republican National Committee.”
“It is a partisan vehicle, as admitted by the House Republican Majority Leader, Mr. (Kevin) McCarthy, to drive down my poll numbers,” she said. “Big surprise. And that’s what they have attempted to do.”
3. Clinton defends flip-flops on issues
Clinton had some weak moments, too. She was taken to task for her shifting views on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and her recently announced opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Liberals in the Democratic party are strongly opposed to both.
Clinton defended herself, asserting that everyone on stage had “changed a position or two” during their political careers.
She said when she served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, she had hoped the Pacific Rim trade agreement would be “the gold standard,” but in the end she said “it didn’t meet my standard.”
And even though she had said in 2010 she was “inclined” to support the Keystone pipeline, Clinton implied she had stayed neutral on the Canada-to-U.S. pipeline throughout her tenure.
“I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone,” Clinton said in a line that had echoes of John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. Kerry famously said he had voted for an $87 billion wartime funding bill “before I voted against it.”
4. The others show they’re likely also-rans
The three other Democratic candidates have struggled to gain traction against Clinton and Sanders, and it didn’t look like they established any footing in the debate.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley did the best of the three, stressing his record of promoting liberal causes during his two terms, but he was also forced to defend his record on criminal justice as Baltimore’s mayor.
He also tried to tap into the notion that another Clinton in the White House is one too many. He said the nation “cannot be this dissatisfied” with the nation’s politics and economy “and think that a resort to old names is going to move us forward.”
Shot back Clinton: “I would not ask anyone to vote for me based on my last name. I’d ask them to listen to what I’m proposing, look at what I accomplished in the Senate, as secretary of state, and then draw your own conclusion.”
Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s best moment may have come at the outset, when the former senator explained his decision to switch from Republican to independent to Democratic during his career by saying he was a “block of granite” on the issues.
Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb appeared openly frustrated at not having equal time and at times talked over Cooper, the moderator.
Neither had a true breakout moment, raising questions about whether they might make a return appearance on stage during the next debate in Iowa.
5. The Biden factor may be over
If Vice President Joe Biden was looking for an opening to join the Democratic field, the debate didn’t appear to give him one.
Clinton made no obvious stumbles in the debate and Sanders played the role of her more liberal counterpart. O’Malley presented himself as a can-do former governor and mayor who has championed an array of progressive causes.
Biden’s name didn’t come up during the debate, and the exchanges during the forum didn’t leave an impression of a party in need of a white knight to ride to its rescue.
After months of considering whether to make a late entry into the race, the debate may have shown that Biden’s window of opportunity has passed.
Local reaction: Democrats happy with calls for free college, higher minimum wage
The contrast was clear to the packed house of supporters watching the first Democratic debate in the 2016 presidential race at Little Italy Pizzeria in Gainesville on Tuesday night.
“Tonight you saw a field of candidates that wants to move the country forward with a vision that is very inclusive, as opposed to the Republican debates, which have been about division, fear, hatred,” said Gabe Shippy, who is spearheading the Hall County Democratic Party’s push to attract younger members. “You saw a huge contrast there.”
Students from the University of North Georgia, as well as several Gainesville City Council candidates in this year’s race, were in attendance.
Calls for free college tuition and raising the minimum wage resonated with the audience and drew loud applause.
“Overall, in this crowd tonight, there was a lot of positive response to Bernie Sanders and what he was saying,” Shippy said. “But keep in mind there were a lot of young folks here, too. We had a very diverse crowd, racially, ethnically.”
Shippy said the debate helps lay the foundation for the Democratic campaign going forward.
Questions of electability and drawing a contrast with Republican candidates will be deciding factors, he added.
Local reaction: Republicans see no game-changers following debate
Hall County Republican Party Chairwoman Debra Pilgrim said Tuesday’s debate shows that Democrats, particularly Clinton, face severe trust issues with the electorate locally and nationally.
“I was glad to see the questions were much tougher than I anticipated,” Pilgrim said. “I felt out of the group that Hillary Clinton was the most polished. But I don’t think anything that was said tonight will be a game-changer in the polls.”
Whereas Republicans have focused on individual liberty and reining in the reach of the federal government in their debates, Pilgrim said, Democrats have run in the other direction.
“I felt that there was a thread that ran throughout (Tuesday’s debate), which was more government, more subsidies, and suggestions that quite possibly could do great damage to small businesses,” she added.
Pilgrim believes that message will resonate with Hall County voters come Election Day 2016.
And though local Republicans are still trying to figure out who they support in a crowded conservative field, “good sense tells you that you have to know what the other side is doing,” Pilgrim said.
Times staff writer Joshua Silavent and the Associated Press contributed to this report