Hillary Clinton gave no ground against her rival Bernie Sanders early in the Democratic debate on Tuesday night, nimbly criticizing the insurgent Vermont Senator’s stance on gun control and his use of Denmark as a model for social programs in the United States.
When asked by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper whether Sanders has done enough to combat gun violence, Clinton answered forcefully. “No,” she said. “Not at all. We have to look at the 90 people we lose a day from gun violence.”
“The majority of our country supports background checks,” she added. “Even a majority of gun owners do. … Senator Sanders votes against the Brady Bill five times.”
She also strongly criticized Sanders for voting in favor of legislation that shielded the gun industry from legal liability, saying she voted against it. “It wasn’t that complicated to me,” Clinton said.
Sanders leaned on his usual stump speech talking points early. He declined to say he is a capitalist when asked directly by Cooper at the debate here in Las Vegas. “Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little?” he responded. “By which Wall Street greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No I don’t.” He then said he admired the economies of Sweden and Denmark.
Clinton jumped in, saying: “When I think about capitalism I think about all the business that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom to do just that.” She praised the opportunity and strong middle class afforded by the American capitalist system.
“We are not Denmark,” she said. “I love Denmark. We are the United States of America.”
For the five candidates, the CNN-hosted debate was less a time for the candidates to spar, and more a crucial evening for all the candidates to make the case that they are the best person to take on the Republicans next year—or the best person to beat Hillary Clinton.
All of the candidates and their surrogates approached the debate as an introduction of sorts. Americans already know Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner of the pack, but her campaign believe she deserves a big stage after months of her poll numbers withering under controversy. And for Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb, this is a rare chance to impress a national audience.
For Clinton, the key was to cut through months of noise about her emails and trustworthiness, and present herself just as her team of campaign aides bills her: the concerned fighter who will work hard for everyday Americans. “She came into the race with universally high favorability ratings among Democrats, and then she had a rough summer,” said Mo Elleithee, a veteran of Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “This is an opportunity for her to remind people what they liked and still like about her.”
The Democratic candidates have been gingerly exploring the ideas that distinguish them, probing for each shade of difference to win an advantage with the Democratic base. Whether the candidates maintain the same gentility during Tuesday’s debate remains to be seen, but Clinton will be surrounded by a group of underdog candidates hungry to leave an impression.
“They’ll stay in their lanes,” longtime Clinton advisor James Carville predicted ahead of the debate.
It is a motley crew of Democrats. Sanders was not a Democrat until five months ago. Webb is a Vietnam War veteran and one-term senator who has been almost entirely absent from the campaign trail. Chafee is a mild-mannered former Republican who left his governorship in Rhode Island after one term with a 26% approval rating. O’Malley is an accomplished politician who has been laying the groundwork for his presidential run for years but languishes at close to zero in the polls.
And then there is the party’s embattled standard-bearer, Clinton, whose detailed policy proposals and campaign message have shrunk under the controversy surrounding her email. Hers may be the biggest test, as she aims to assure Democrats she is as strong ahead of a general election year, as she appeared when her campaign began in April.
“In a few hours, I’ll be on the debate stage telling millions of people about our ideas for how to make all of our futures brighter,” Clinton said in an email to her supporters on Tuesday morning, presaging her first huge audience of the 2016 election.
Her challengers in Las Vegas will try to do the same thing, only better—and louder.