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Liveblog: National Security, Economy Main Focus Of Democratic Debate

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, left, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Martin O'Malley participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate Saturday in Des Moines.
Charlie Neibergall
Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, left, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Martin O'Malley participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate Saturday in Des Moines.

The Democrats' second white House debate opened with a much different tone than either party's bitter clashes have, pausing for a moment of silence after Friday's deadly terrorist attacks in France.

The first 30 minutes focused entirely on foreign policy and national security — something that should have given former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a prime moment. Instead, she was often pressed by both her rivals and the CBS moderators on the Obama administration's foreign policy and ended up on the defensive far more than she would have liked.

Still, Clinton was far more comfortable discussing the topic than her chief rival Bernie Sanders. From his opening statement, the Vermont independent senator quickly changed the topic to his forte on economic inequality. He did use the national-security discussion to remind voters he had opposed the Iraq invasion from the beginning, though, staking out a position to Clinton's left yet again.

It's something that hurt her in 2008 against Barack Obama, but she has since called the vote a mistake and with the Obama's winding down of U.S. involvement there, that vote doesn't seem to be quite as salient with the base.

Once the debate's questions overall turned to the economy, Sanders was much more at ease. Joined by former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley in his assault, they both pressed Clinton over her coziness with Wall Street. O'Malley had some good moments, and the smaller stage of just three candidates did help him stand out more, but he was still far behind both Clinton and Sanders in speaking time.

Our full liveblog from the evening's two hour debate is below:

10:50 p.m. CBS actually wraps up the debate early. Here's a snippet of each candidate's closing statements:

O'Malley, paining himself as the fresh face in the Democratic party: "If you believe that our country's problems and the threats that we face in this world can only be met with new thinking, new and fresh approaches, then I ask you to join my campaign."

Clinton, painting herself as a longtime fighter: "Ultimately I think the president's job is to do everything possible, everything that she can do to lift up the people of this country, starting with our children and moving forward."

Sanders, turning it back to inequality: "We have a corrupt campaign finance system dominated by SuperPACs. We're the only major country on earth that doesn't guarantee health care to all people. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty and we're the only country in the world, or virtually the only country, that doesn't guarantee paid family and medical leave. That's not the America that I think we should be, but in order to bring out the changes that we need, we need a political revolution."

10:45 p.m. Candidates are asked about the biggest crisis they faced that would give them experience as president. Clinton talks about sitting in the situation room as President Obama decided whether or not to order the strike that would kill Osama Bin Laden. "We had all kinds of questions that we discussed, and at the end I recommended to the president that we take the chance to do what we could to find out whether that was Bin Laden and to finally bring him to justice."

O'Malley appears to somewhat undermine himself on his greatest crisis, though it is an honest answer: "I don't think there's a crisis at the state or local level that really you can point to and say 'I am prepared for the sort of crises that any man or woman who is the commander and chief of our country has to deal with.' But I can tell you this — I can tell you that as a mayor and as a governor I learned certain disciplines which I believe are directly applicable to that very, very powerful and most important of all job" of president "whose first and primary duty is to protect the people of our country."

10:40 p.m. There's also divisions on whether or not each candidate would back free college — only Sanders would. "I want those kids to know that if they study hard, they do their homework, regardless of the income of their families, they will in fact be able to get a college education because we're going to make public colleges and universities tuition free," he says.

Clinton sees it differently: "I don't think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump's kids to college. I think it ought to be a compact. Families contribute, kids contribute and together we make it possible for a new generation of young people to refinance their debt."

10:30 p.m. Clinton is asked about unrest on college campuses like the University of Missouri, and she sort of talks around the question. Noting she was a child of the '60s when "there was a lot of activism," she says she "believes that on a college campus there should enough respect so that people hear each other, but what happened at the university there, what's happening at other universities, I think reflects the deep sense of concern of despair that so many young people particularly of color have."

10:25 p.m. Sanders, after declaring last debate that he'd heard enough about Hillary's "damn emails" seemed to walk back those comments in media interviews since last month. But tonight, he again fails to take the bait and says it's simply a furor created by the media.

"I was sick and tired of Hillary Clinton's emails. I'm still sick and tired of Hillary Clinton's email and the issue is, the problem is front pages everyday were dealing with that. I didn't know I had so much power," Sanders says. "What I would like in the media now is for us to be talking about why the middle class is disappearing."

Clinton laughs that she agrees with Sanders, and when she's asked if any other shoes will drop on her emails, she says after her 11 hours of testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, she doesn't think so.

10:14 p.m. Clinton's been on defense for most of the night, but she gets to go on offense on gun control, and both she and O'Malley attack Sanders on the issue. Sanders said he's willing to look again at the bill he voted for that gave legal immunity to gun manufacturers "and make sure it's a stronger bill."

O'Malley isn't giving Sanders any cover here as he has on issues of Wall Street and the economy. But he also goes after Clinton, trying to paint himself as the most progressive on gun control.

"Secretary Clinton, you've been on 3 sides of this. When you ran in 2000 you said that we needed federal robust regulations. then in 2008 you were portraying yourself as Annie Oakley and saying that we don't need those regulations on the federal level and now you're coming back around here," he says.

10:08 p.m. The biggest flashpoint of the night between Sanders and Clinton is, unsurprisingly, over Wall Street. She defends donations she's received, but Sanders bluntly says her answer is "not good enough."

"Let's not be naïve about it," he says. "Why over her political career has Wall Street been a major the major campaign contributor to Hillary Clinton? Now maybe they're dumb and they're don't know what they're going to get, but I don't think so."

Clinton fires back saying that Sanders is trying to "impugn my integrity." "Let's be frank here," she continues. "You know. not only do I have hundreds of thousands of donors, most of them small, first time a majority of my donors are women 60 percent."

This may be one of the most memorable and consequential lines of the night — Clinton defending her Wall Street donations by invoking 9/11: "So, I represented New York, and I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked. Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country."

O'Malley jumps in, saying "Bernie's right" and that her plan is "weak tea" to reform Wall Street and that Glass Steagall should be reinstated. But Clinton is ready with some rare oppo against O'Malley, pointing out that he put investment bankers in his cabinet as governor.

9:55 p.m. Turning to the minimum wage, Sanders makes his pitch for a living wage at $15/hour: "It is not a radical idea to say that if somebody works 40 hours a week that person should not be living in poverty. It is not a radical idea to say that a single mom should be earning enough money to take care of her kids. So I believe that over the next few years, not tomorrow but over the next few years, we've got to move the minimum wage to a living wage — 15 bucks an hour — and I apologize to nobody for that."

O'Malley chimes in that he actually did raise the wage when he was governor of Maryland — to $10.10 an hour, as much as he could get pushed through the legislature. "This was not merely theory in Maryland."

Clinton says she supports at $12 per hour minimum wage, but O'Malley hits her for taking "advice from economists on Wall Street" on that. Her chief economic adviser, Alan Krueger, comes from Princeton and has never worked on Wall Street, though.

9:50 p.m. O'Malley gets applause for a line he's used before on illegal immigration: "The fact of the matter is, and let's say it in our debate, because you'll never hear this from that immigrant-bashing, carnival-barker Donald Trump – the truth of the matter is, the truth of the matter is net immigration from Mexico was zero. Fact check me....Our symbol is a statue of liberty it is not a barbed wire fence."

9:42 p.m. Something all the Democratic candidates would do — raise taxes on the wealthy. O'Malley says he would tax capital gains at the same rate as income.

Sanders doesn't back off his socialist views, even admitting his tax plan would include the "redistribution of wealth." But, he argues, it wouldn't be as bad as President Dwight Eisenhower's plan (who was a Republican.")

"We haven't come up with an exact number yet, but it will not be as high as the number under Dwight D. Eisenhower, which was 90 percent," he laughs. "I'm not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower."

9:38 p.m. After the first commercial break, the conversation turns to the economy — something welcome to Sanders, but maybe even Clinton. She held her own during questions about foreign policy, but she was pressed by Dickerson far harder than she probably thought she would be and had to answer for the Obama administration she served in.

9:33 p.m. All the Democratic candidates also support taking in some Syrian refugees. Clinton emphasizes that they should be carefully screened, while O'Malley says he'd accept 65,000 people.

9:25 p.m. Another skirmish is over whether or not the term "radical Islam" should be used — all three say it shouldn't. Clinton says even President George W. Bush said the fight wasn't against the Muslim religion. O'Malley says "radical jihadis" is appropriate, but that terrorists claiming the Muslim faith are "perverting" it.

9:20 p.m. O'Malley is asked about whether, as a two-term governor, has the experience to lead on foreign policy. He doesn't really answer the question, but does bring this moving story: "I was in Burlington, Iowa, and a mom of a service member of ours who served two duties in Iraq said 'Gov. O'Malley, please when you're with your other candidates and colleagues on stage. "lease don't use the term boots on the ground. My son is not a pair of boots on the ground."

9:15 p.m. Sanders pivots early on to attack Clinton on probably her greatest foreign policy weakness — her vote to authorize the Iraq War in 2002. That, he says, "unraveled the region completely" and was one of the "worst foreign policy blunders in the modern history of the United States." He argues to Clinton that the "invasions and the toppling of governments have unintended consequences." Clinton counters that you can't just paint the question with a "broad brush" and that it's more complicated.

Sanders also says he still believes that climate change is still the greatest threat to the world and is directly related to the spread of terrorism.

9:10 p.m. Clinton is asked where she differs with the Obama administration on ISIS — after the president said Friday morning the extremist group was being contained.

"We have to look at ISIS as the leading threat of an international terror network. It cannot be contained — it must be defeated," Clinton says, in a break with her former boss. "There's no question in my mind that if we summon our resources, both our leadership resources and all of the tools at our disposal, not just military force — which should be used as a last resort-- but our diplomacy, our development and law enforcement... that we can bring people together, but it cannot be an American fight."

9:07 p.m. Here's Clinton's opening statement: "We need to have resolve that will bring the world together to root out the kind of radical jihadist ideology that motivates organizations like ISIS, a barbaric, ruthless violent jihadist terrorist group...I will be laying out in detail what i think need to do with our friends and allies in Europe and elsewhere to do a better job of coordinating an effort against the surge of terrorism. Our country deserves no less because all the other issues we want to deal with depend upon us being secure and strong."

9:05 p.m. Sanders begins by mentioning the Paris attacks in his opening statements, but then quickly transitions into his stump speech on economic inequality and the undue influence of money in politics. "I'm running for president because as I go around I talk to a lot of people and what I hear is people's concern that the economy. We have is a rigged economy," he says. "What my campaign is about is a political revolution, millions of people standing up and saying 'Enough is enough.'"

That underscores his team's earlier push to focus not on foreign policy — it's an awkward start given what's on Americans' minds.

9 p.m. The debate begins with a moment of silence for the victims of the Paris attacks as moderator John Dickerson reminds viewers such forums are one of the freedoms we enjoy in America. It's already a very different tone from other debates.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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