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Locals react to first Democratic debate in 2016 presidential race
Clinton, Sanders clash on guns, economy, foreign policy
Local Democrats gathered at Little Italy Pizzeria in Gainesville on Tuesday night for the first Democratic presidential debate.

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, with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders stealing the limelight.

“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.

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.

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

Yet in a moment of political unity — and levity — Sanders leapt to Clinton’s defense on the issue of her controversial email practices as secretary of state.

“The American people are sick and tired of 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.”

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. They also sought to cast the GOP as a party focused on sowing division and denigrating minorities and women.

Before they face the Republicans, 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 a candidate who had barely mentioned her Democratic rivals since launching her campaign six months ago. Until Tuesday night, Clinton and Sanders — who has surprisingly emerged as her toughest competition — had circled each other cautiously and avoided direct attacks.

After Sanders, 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 U.S. 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 is drawing big crowds on the campaign trail and challenging Clinton’s fundraising prowess, but he’s largely unknown to many Americans. The debate offered him a high-profile opportunity to cast himself as an electable alternative to Clinton and appeal for support beyond his liberal base.

Sanders has sought in particular to distinguish himself from Clinton over foreign policy, an issue where she is often more hawkish than others in the Democratic Party. The former secretary of state reiterated her call for more robust U.S. 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.

The only woman on stage, Clinton also highlighted the prospect of becoming the nation’s first female president multiple times. When asked how her administration would differ from President Barack Obama’s, she said with a smile, “Being the first woman president would be quite a change.”

Clinton’s confident performance was likely to ease anxiety among supporters who have questioned her campaign’s handling of the email controversy. One question still to be answered: how her showing will affect Vice President Joe Biden’s decision about making a late entry into the Democratic race.

Biden has been deliberating about his political future for months and is expected to announce a decision within days. Debate host CNN kept an extra podium on standby in case he decided to show up, but the vice president instead stayed in Washington, where he was watching the debate at his residence. He was not mentioned during the two-hour debate.

Even with the swirling Biden speculation and Clinton’s email controversy, the Democratic contest has largely been overshadowed by the Republican primary, where more than a dozen candidates are fighting to overtake billionaire Donald 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 U.S. illegally. The party is counting on general election support from Hispanics, a group that overwhelmingly voted for Obama in 2012

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

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 Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who bragged about how a House committee investigating Clinton’s role in the 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 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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