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Democratic Debate: Slight Differences With Each Other, Stark Ones With GOP

Democratic Debate: Slight Differences With Each Other, Stark Ones With GOP

Democratic debate

'On our worst day, I think we have a lot more to offer the American people than the right wing's extremists,' says Bernie Sanders.

The three contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination kept their debate civil but lively Saturday night, highlighting fair-to-middling differences among themselves but stark differences with the Republicans -- and closing with a nod to a pop-culture phenomenon.

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley met for their final debate of the year at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. ABC News televised the forum, with the network's David Muir and Martha Raddatz moderating.

Early on, Sanders addressed how his campaign gained access to some of Clinton's campaign data through the Democratic National Committee's website, and the discussion of the matter ended with a conciliatory tone.

Sanders said that because of a mistake on the part of a DNC vendor, information from Clinton's campaign was at one point visible to his staff, and "our staff did the wrong thing -- they looked at that information." He fired a campaign staffer as a result, but he objected to the DNC shutting off his campaign's access to its own information, while noting that has now been resolved.

He and Clinton have both agreed to an independent investigation of the matter, and they both said it's time to move on. Also, he apologized and Clinton accepted. "I don't think the American people are all that interested in this," he added. "I think they're more interested in what we have to say about all the big issues facing us."

With that out of the way, they went on to the issues. All three excoriated Republican front-runner Donald Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric, saying it's not only contrary to American values but playing into the hands of radicals such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

"The first line of defense against radicalization is in Muslim-American community," Clinton said. "People who we should be welcoming and working with. I worry greatly that the rhetoric coming from the Republicans, particularly Donald Trump, is sending a message to Muslims here in the United States and literally around the world that there is a 'clash of civilizations,' that there is some kind of Western plot or even 'war against Islam,' which then I believe fans the flames of radicalization." O'Malley added that anti-Muslim sentiment is "a clear and present danger."

They also talked about the best way to fight ISIS in the Middle East. Clinton and Sanders both oppose the use of U.S. ground troops against ISIS, saying there needs to be a coalition of Middle Eastern countries leading the charge, but Clinton said she favors the use of American special operations forces and trainers.

Sanders said he fears Clinton's too favorable to the idea of "regime change," using U.S. forces to overthrow dictators, "and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be." She spoke in favor of working against ISIS and Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad at the same time, while Sanders said ISIS must be the first priority, then Assad.

O'Malley spoke against the idea of regime change as well. "We shouldn't be the ones declaring that Assad must go," he said. "Where did it ever say in the Constitution, where is it written that it's the job of the United States of America or its secretary of State to determine when dictators have to go? We have a role to play in this world. But it is not ... the role of traveling the world looking for new monsters to destroy."

Sanders also pointed out the situation in Libya has become chaotic and ISIS has made inroads there since Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown by a coalition that included the U.S. Clinton noted that Sanders, a U.S. senator, voted for the action against Gadhafi, but he responded that she was secretary of State at the time.

Other issues spotlighted included gun control, with Clinton criticizing Sanders for voting against the Brady gun control bill, Sanders saying he'd lost elections for wanting stricter gun laws, and O'Malley accusing Clinton of shifting her position on the issue. But they generally agreed on tougher background checks and other measures to prevent gun violence, and O'Malley touted an assault weapons ban enacted when he was governor of Maryland.

In the realm of law enforcement, they generally agreed on the need to combat racism in the criminal justice system and make police forces more diverse and more involved in their community to prevent police overreactions and build trust between citizens and police.

On the economy, they all supported raising the minimum wage and other means to improve the situation of the middle class and the poor. Sanders, as he has before, criticized Clinton as being too beholden to Wall Street and corporate America. Moderator Muir asked, "Should corporate America love Hillary Clinton?" to which she responded, "Everybody should," to applause and laughter.

Then, when Muir asked if corporate America would love a President Sanders, the Vermont senator replied, "No, I think they won't." He and O'Malley both spoke of the need to break up large financial institutions and put in a new version of the now-repealed Glass-Steagall Act, which separated investment banking and commercial banking.

Clinton asserted that she wants to rein in the excesses of Wall Street and make the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, but also sees the need to work with business to create jobs and improve the economy for all. She also pledged not to raise taxes on the middle class.

She further promised to built on the successes of the Affordable Care Act, which has made health insurance available to many who could not get it previously, while addressing what she called "glitches," the higher rates and deductibles seen in many existing policies.

Sanders repeated his call for single-payer, universal health insurance. While funded by taxes, especially taxes on the wealthy, it would save the middle class thousands of dollars over what they're spending on insurance now.

They also talked about making college more affordable -- Sanders wants tuition-free public colleges and universities, while Clinton wants students to pay something, without going deeply into debt. O'Malley spoke of holding tuition costs down when he was governor of Maryland.

In a discussion of the role of presidential spouses, Clinton received a question that would probably go only to a woman candidate. Raddatz noted that selecting flowers, china, and so forth for the White House has traditionally been the first lady's job, and she asked if Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, would take that on. The candidate said he probably would not, but he would advise her on certain policy issues.

Sanders added that his wife, Jane, who has much experience working with at-risk young people, would be a trusted adviser, "given the fact that she's a lot smarter than me." O'Malley, whose wife, Katie, is a judge, said it would be up to her whether to keep that position. "Katie O'Malley will do whatever Katie O'Malley wants to do," he said.

In the end, despite their differences, they agreed all of them are preferable to the Republican field. "Let me applaud my colleagues up here," Sanders said in his closing statement. "Because I think frankly, maybe I'm wrong, but on our worst day, I think we have a lot more to offer the American people than the right wing's extremists."

In O'Malley's closing statement, he said, "When you listened to the Republican debate the other night, you heard a lot of anger and you had a lot of fear. Well, they can have their anger and they can have their fear, but anger and fear never built America. We build our country by adopting wage and labor policies, including comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway of citizenship for all. We do it by investing in our country, by investing in infrastructure, by investing in the skills and the talents of our people with debt-free college, and we can do it again."

Clinton offered, "On January 20th, 2017, the next president of the United States will walk into the White House. If, heaven forbid, that next president is a Republican, I think it's pretty clear we know what will happen. A lot of the rights that have been won over years, from women's rights to voter rights to gay rights to worker rights, will be at risk. ... The list goes on because the differences are so stark."

And she ended with a nod to what's dominating popular culture this weekend: "Thank you, good night, and may the Force be with you."

For more, check out The Washington Post's annotated debate transcript here.

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