By Tiffany Pattillo
The five Democratic presidential candidates had considerably more elbow room than Republicans as they took the stage at the Wynn Resort hotel and casino in Las Vegas for their first primary debate Oct. 13.
The debate was hosted by CNN and Facebook and moderated by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.
Cooper proved to be well-equipped to ask tough questions and demand direct answers when the first question of the night addressed accusations of political expediency to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Cooper asked her outright, “Will you say anything to get elected?” Clinton denied that she adjusts her views to suit her audience and said, “I’m a progressive. But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was also tasked early on to explain how he could win a general election while referring to himself as a democratic socialist and saying openly he’s not a capitalist. “I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires,” Sanders said.
Clinton’s use of a private email server as Secretary of State was a prominent topic during the debate. Her initial response attempted to paint the questions about her emails as a Republican “vehicle” to hurt her in the polls. Cooper was quick to respond that it was a “little bit hard to call this just a partisan issue,” citing the FBI investigation of her emails and President Obama’s recent statement that her emails were a legitimate issue. Clinton then attempted to drive conversation away from the topic, stating she will answer questions about her emails when she testifies before Congress and wanted to talk about “what the American people want from the next president of the United States.” Sen. Sanders spoke out here, doing what CNN’s Jake Tapper deemed “a solid” for Clinton, attempting to steer conversation back to “the real issues facing America.” “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” Sen. Sanders said. Clinton thanked Sanders and shook his hand, and his comment was followed by riotous applause. Cooper clarified that, while his statement plays well to that crowd, some Americans do want these questions answered.
Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee utilized this moment to question Clinton’s ethics, suggesting that American credibility is an issue requiring repair. “I think we need someone that has the best in ethical standards as our next president,” Chafee said. Chafee wasn’t just slinging mud here. Clinton’s trustworthiness has been an extensively discussed topic during her entire campaign. An August 2015 poll of presidential swing states conducted by Quinnipiac University found that more than 60 percent of voters from Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania do not find Clinton honest or trustworthy. Winning a general election while lacking voter trust would be unlikely; however, several media commentators felt that Clinton’s performance in this first debate helped to boost her credibility. In fact, a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Oct. 20 found that Democrats find Clinton and Sanders almost equally trustworthy.
Gov. Chafee’s statements about Clinton’s emails were the night’s closest semblance to personal attacks seen at the second Republican debate. However, the candidate’s manner of speaking about and to one another is not the only contrast between Democrats and Republicans. According to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, businessman Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson are leading Republicans. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has since fallen from her third-place spot, where she was polling after the second GOP debate. Also, according to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, Secretary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Vice President Joe Biden are leading Democrats. Interestingly, Vice President Biden had made no official announcement of his candidacy at the time of these polls. Biden announced Oct. 21 that he will not run for president in 2016. With his bid out, upcoming polls will show how voter support will newly divide. Political experience is a key issue separating the top candidates of each party. If these top candidates become the party nominees, how will the factor of their experience affect results in the general election?
Gov. Chafee and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb had rather lackluster performances during the debate. Webb’s stand-out moments were his complaints of not being given enough time to answer, to which Cooper responded, “You agreed to these debate rules.” Gov. Chafee also faltered when Cooper asked about his 1999 vote to repeal Glass-Steagall, which Cooper explained to voters as the “Depression-era banking law repealed in 1999 that prevented commercial banks from engaging in investment banking and insurance activities.” Chafee said, “The Glass-Steagall was my very first vote, I’d just arrived, my dad had died in office, I was appointed to the office, it was my very first vote.” “Are you saying you didn’t know what you were voting for?” Cooper said. Chafee never fully formed a defense and said to Cooper, “I think you’re being a little rough.” This blunder showed Chafee’s lack of preparation and ability to either defend his choices or admit his fault.
Clinton remains the leading candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination after her substantial debate performance, and Biden’s withdrawal could potentially widen the gap of her lead over Sanders. Will she leave Sanders in the dust? The waiting game begins.
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