The remaining three Democrats vying for their party’s presidential nomination are debating in Des Moines, Iowa. But events unfolding 4,400 miles away in Paris were dominating the first moments of the conversation on Saturday night.
The CBS News debate at Drake University opened with the discussion of the brutal terror attacks that took place a day earlier. Coordinated attacks fanned out through the French capital and killed 129 people. Islamic State terrorists claimed responsibility.
“Our prayers are with the people of France, but that is not enough,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as she began the second presidential debate.
“Together, leading this world, this country will rid our planet of this barbarous organization called ISIS,” Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said.
And the third, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, said such attacks are the new normal. “This is the new face of conflict and warfare in the 21st Century,” he said.
With the City of Lights reeling from the deaths of at least 129 people after blasts and half a dozen firearm attacks on Friday night, the Democrats were seeking to prove their mettle as strong commanders-in-chief in a perilous global moment.
But it had some feisty moments, as well. Looking to steady slipping poll numbers, Sanders said the Islamic terrorism was inflamed by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “That was one of the worst foreign-policy blunders in the history of the United States,” Sanders said. Left unsaid at first was that Clinton voted to authorize that invasion.
“I have said the invasion of Iraq was a mistake,” conceded Clinton.
And while economic and domestic questions were likely to feature prominently later during Saturday night’s forum, it was clear the initial focus was foreign policy and national security—an area that Clinton, as former Secretary of State is well-versed.
“Last night’s attacks are a tragic example of the kind of challenges American Presidents face in today’s world and we intend to ask the candidates how they would confront the evolving threat of terrorism,” said CBS News Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief Christopher Isham.
The CBS team had been prepping questions on Friday afternoon when reports of the Paris attacks started coming in. It quickly became clear that the debate would have to be rejiggered, and the team was still prepping and adjusting questions on Saturday at noon.
“I think you could expect that that part of the debate will be fairly prominently featured,” Isham said of the national security portion of the debate.
The Iowa caucus is now only two-and-a-half months away, and pressure is building on to take a chunk out of Clinton’s support.
But while both O’Malley and Sanders’ insurgent campaigns have signaled in recent weeks they intend to attack Clinton’s record in the debate, that approach would be unseemly after the death and mayhem of the Paris attacks.
As Secretary of State, Clinton advised without much success for greater involvement in Syria, home base of ISIS, and has now called for a no-fly zone in the region. Sanders has criticized her harshly for voting in favor of the Iraq War, a point he is likely to repeat on Saturday.
All the candidates released statements on Friday night in solidarity with the French.
“All our prayers are with the people of France tonight. We must stand side-by-side every step of the way with France and our allies around the world to wage and win the struggle against terrorism and violent extremism,” Clinton said. “Even in this darkest night, Paris remains the City of Light. No terrorist attack will ever dim the spirit of the French people or our common commitment to the democratic values we share.”
“My heart breaks as we continue to learn more details about the horrific attacks in Paris tonight. I am praying for the victims and families affected by this violence,” O’Malley said. “We stand with President Obama in condemning this assault on our common humanity. And we stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of France — liberté, égalité, and fraternité.”
“We are all horrified by the cowardly attacks against innocent civilians in Paris,” Sanders said. “I offer my sympathy to the victims and their families. We stand in solidarity with the people of France, the first friend of the United States.”
Clinton’s state director in Iowa, Matt Paul, said the campaign was toning down the flag-waving and celebrations ahead of the debate.
Sanders has built a sprawling organization in the Hawkeye State, but has fallen in the polls since September, when he nearly matched Clinton.
Clinton will be hoping for a repeat performance of the first debate in Las Vegas, when she confidently controlled the discourse and affirmed her frontrunner status. In that appearance, Clinton faced few direct attacks from her rivals, Sanders and O’Malley, and instead criticized Sanders pointedly on gun control.
O’Malley and Sanders have both signaled in recent weeks that the could attack her on central campaign issues. O’Malley called Clinton out for using the term “illegal immigrants” and has accused her of being too hawkish on immigration, while Sanders has raised the possibility of criticizing her on her emails, despite disavowing the issue in the first debate. He also may criticize her consistency on key issues like the Keystone Pipeline and the Transpacific Partnership, ideas she hedged on before opposing.
Attacking Clinton, however, could appear insensitive and crude of the two Democratic challengers in the wake of the Paris incidents.
“American leadership is put to the test,” Steve Capus, the executive editor of CBS News, told the New York Times. “The entire world is looking to the White House. These people are vying to take over this office.”
Iowa Democrats—and Democrats nationally—worry that Sanders would be unable to win in a general election against a Republican and believe that Clinton is better equipped to bring about change as president, according to a CBS/New York Times poll.
Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley are set to debate for two hours, treating Iowa to its first and only debate of the Democratic primary. The debate began at 9 p.m. ET on CBS.