DES MOINES — Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton praised an upbeat ad from her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, during CNN’s “town hall” for Democratic candidates Monday night: “I loved it.”
“I think that’s great. I think that’s fabulous. I loved it,” Clinton said, after seeing an that juxtaposed images of Sanders’ large crowds with a soundtrack of someone singing Simon and Garfunkel: “They’ve all come to look for America.”
“Now, look, you campaign in poetry. You govern in prose. And we need a lot more poetry in this campaign,” Clinton said. “But I believe that I’m the better person to be the Democratic nominee, and the commander in chief.”
In her appearance, Clinton returned repeatedly to the central theme of her primary campaign against Sanders: that the presidency is more complicated than he makes it sound, and the president must be more well-rounded and versatile than Sanders can be. When asked for her favorite president from history, she eschewed the two most recent Democrats: “Sorry, President Obama. Sorry, Bill. Abraham Lincoln,” Clinton said.
Her reason, of course, was that Lincoln was a multi-tasking president, leading the country through the Civil War while also pressing for westward expansion, and planning for a future after the war.
“You’ve got to do a lot of things at once,” Clinton said.
Clinton was the final Democratic presidential contender to take the stage Monday in Des Moines, exactly one week ahead of the Iowa caucuses. Sanders went first, and former governor Martin O’Malley followed.
The forum comes at a key juncture in the race, with recent polls showing Clinton’s once-formidable lead over Sanders, the “democratic socialist” senator from Vermont, having vanished.
Clinton attacked Republican front-runner Donald Trump — without ever saying his name — for denigrating Muslims with a call to bar Muslim foreigners from entering the country.
“It’s not only shameful and contrary to our values to say that people of a certain religion should never come to this counry, or to claim that there are no real people of the Muslim faith who share our values,” Clinton said. “It’s not only shameful and offensive, which it is. I think it’s dangerous.”
Clinton said Trump’s rhetoric would hamper U.S. abilities to make alliances with majority-Muslim countries — and alienate U.S. Muslims as well.
Clinton used her segment of CNN’s three-candidate Democratic “town hall” to stress the central message of her campaign: that her wide experience in Washington makes her best-qualified to achieve liberal goals. She is trying repel a challenge from Sanders, who has called for more far-reaching policies and rejected Clinton’s approach as incrementalist.
Clinton was asked: Could she really work more effectively with Republicans, whom she referred to in one debate as her “enemies.”
“It was kind of tongue in cheek. And I consider them worthy adversaries, which they are,” Clinton told moderator Chris Cuomo. “When I’m actually in office, they say very nice things about me.”
As a way of summing up her approach, Clinton quoted a saying from Cuomo’s father, former New York governor and Democratic legend Mario Cuomo: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”
Clinton was was also challenged about her honesty and her unexpected struggles in the primary during CNN’s “town hall” for Democratic candidates Monday.
Clinton spoke last of the three candidates, and her session began with an awkward inquiry from moderator Chris Cuomo: How are you in a close race with a socialist?
Clinton laughed, loud and long and without any trace of actual mirth. “Look, it’s a great country. Despite what one of the Republicans says. And we are all, on the Democratic side, having a spirited debate.”
It did not get much easier: later, a young man in the audience — who supported that “democratic socialist,” Sanders — questioned Clinton’s honesty, an implicit reference to Clinton’s use of a private email server to hold government emails. She responded by saying, essentially: You haven’t been paying attention very long, have you?
“They throw all these things at me, and I’m still standing,” Clinton said of her foes, noting that she’s been targeted in past scandals, but has never been knocked down. But some people who are new to politics — “They go, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all of that” — and don’t understand the context, Clinton said, waiving her arms in mock panic. The real reason for the attacks, she said: “I’ve been on the front lines of change and progress since I was your age.”
O’Malley faced a jarring question in CNN’s “town hall” for Democratic candidates Monday: If you don’t succeed, who should be your voters’ second choice?
Moderator Chris Cuomo noted that, in some caucusing precincts in Iowa, candidates who don’t win support from 15 percent of voters are declared not viable, and their voters are released to find someone else. If the polls are right, that might be O’Malley’s sad fate in some places: Even after months of campaigning, he is still polling at less than 5 percent in Iowa.
So, Cuomo said, O’’Malley might offer some words of advice to his caucus-goers, once they can’t caucus for him. “What is your suggestion to them?” Cuomo asked.
O’Malley, not surprisingly, didn’t buy the premise of the question.
“Hold strong, at your caucus,” he said, as the crowd applauded. “Hold strong at your caucus, because America’s looking for a new leader.” O’Malley then repeated his youth-based argument, which held that his rivals, Sanders and Clinton, are leaders from the past: “We cannot be this fed up with [the state of American politics] and think a resort to old ideologies or old names is going to move us forward,” he said.
O’Malley — who also served as mayor of Baltimore — also defended his record on racial issues and policing, saying he should be judged in light of the crime he inherited.
“In 1999, our city of Baltimore had become the most violent, the most addicted, the most abandoned city in America,” O’Malley said. “We were burying over 300 young, poor, black men every single year. And yes, black lives matter.”
The first question that O’Malley faced was about this issue, which has been a persistent criticism for the former governor during his campaign. Last summer, O’Malley said that “all lives matter” in response to protesters shouting “black lives matter,” and he later apologized for appearing to doubt the validity of the protesters’ concerns about violence by police.
At issue was O’Malley’s emphasis on “zero tolerance” policing, which critics have said led to young, black men being incarcerated for minor crimes. O’Malley said he was trying to reduce the power of drug dealers, who had claimed large sections of the city. He said that he had tried to reduce crime while also reducing rates of incarceration — and had succeeded at both.
O’Malley sought to strike an informal tone: when the questions began, the notoriously dashing O’Malley shed his suit jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves. The crowd cheered.
Sanders, during his 45 minutes on the stage, criticized Clinton for showing poor judgment on foreign policy and for moving too slowly to embrace liberal positions on Wall Street regulation and climate change.
He tried to rebut Clinton’s argument that her experience in Washington makes her a better candidate. “Experience is important. But judgment is also important,” he said, concluding a litany of contrasts with Clinton. He said that the former vice president Dick Cheney — a hated figure among Democrats — also had a long Washington resume: “He had a lot of experience too.”
Sanders was asked about a TV ad run by Clinton that implicitly knocked Sanders for his limited focus on economic issues. He stood up.
“Don’t leave!” said moderator Chris Cuomo. “We have another 15 minutes.”
“This calls for a standing-up response,” Sanders said. He began by saying that he respected Clinton’s record in public service. Then he listed all the things he felt she’d gotten wrong during that service, beginning with Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq War while she was a senator from New York.
“The truth is that the most significant vote and issue regarding foreign policy that we have seen in modern history is the vote on the war in Iraq. OK. That’s a fact. I voted against the war in Iraq,” Sanders said.
The format allowed people in the audience to ask questions, although Sanders often did not let them finish before letting out grunts or half-words that showed he was already ready to answer.
At one point, Sanders was asked about his age. Cuomo said Sanders would be 75 on the day he was inaugurated.
“I’m going on 75! So are you!” Sanders said. He said he was in good health, and pledged to release medical records that showed it — before the Iowa caucuses next Monday.
Sanders opened the forum by taking a question about a word that has shadowed his campaign since its beginning: what does “socialism” mean to him?
“What democratic socialism means to me is that economic rights, the right to economic security, should exist in the United States of America,” said Sanders, who calls himself a “democratic socialist.” He said the term means that government listens to the middle class as much as it listens to the rich, and that government helps students have access to college. “Creating a government that works for all of us, not just a handful of people on the top. That’s my definition of democratic socialism.”
Sanders was then asked about his plans for universal, government-provided health insurance. He made an admission that most candidates would be loath to make in any national forum: “We will raise taxes. Yes we will.” But, Sanders said, that’s because government would take the place of private insurers — and his system would save money on balance for middle-class Americans.
“We may raise taxes, but we also are going to eliminate private health insurance premiums,” Sanders said. He has found himself on the defensive in the last few days, as Clinton’s campaign has said that Sanders’ plans would be both politically unworkable and alarmingly expensive.
Leading up to to the town hall, Clinton continued to criss-cross the state Monday. Her campaign also continued to spar with Sanders over gun control and other issues on which they say Sanders has changed his positions.
The Clinton campaign accused Sanders of “caving to pressure” eight times in 10 days on a series of issues, including his statements on Iran and his position on repealing a key law that prohibits federal funding for abortions.
And the campaign criticized Sanders for a mailer sent out to voters that called him “A lifelong advocate for gun safety.” Instead, the Clinton campaign “fixed” the flyer to say: “A lifelong advocate for gun companies’ safety from liability.”
The mailer, which the Sanders campaign said was sent to 233,000 households, sought to burnish his credentials on an issue that has dogged him for much of the campaign.
Sanders, who represents a state with little gun control, has a mixed record on the issue, having voted against the landmark Brady Bill and for legislation granting legal immunity from gun manufacturers and deals when their products are used to commit a crime.
The mailer highlighted other votes Sanders has taken to ban assault weapons and strengthen background checks.
On the campaign trail, Clinton referred to Sanders only as her “esteemed opponent,” and largely stuck to her measured argument for her candidacy — that “the hard, patient, persistent way is the best way to accomplish our goals.”
During a full day of campaigning, Sanders largely stuck to his primary message of rebuilding the middle class. At a stop in Iowa Falls, he heard from several audience members struggling to stay afloat financially, include one woman who was in tears as she told him about not be able to afford to pay her bills and not having enough money to buy presents for her children while she waited on a disability payment.
“Thank you. Thank you,” Sanders said. “ It is not easy for people to stand up and share their stories.”
He said was running because for president because there are so many stories like hers.
To comply with a Democratic National Committee rule limiting the number of formal debates, Monday’s town hall calls for the candidates to take questions separately from moderator Chris Cuomo and the audience. Sanders, O’Malley and then Clinton will each have 30 minutes on stage, according to CNN.
In recent weeks, the former secretary of state has turned far more aggressive, seeking to put the Vermont senator on his heels on issues including gun control, health care and reproductive rights.
Clinton has also argued that she is the only candidate prepared to do the entire job of being president — a not-so-subtle dig at a competitor whose campaign has focused largely on economic issues. She has suggested that Sanders is not pushing realistic policy ideas, citing as a prime example his plan for a single-payer, Medicare-for-all health plan.
Aides say Clinton is expected to use the CNN forum to continue to highlight what she sees as defining differences with Sanders.
Sanders, meanwhile, has been taking aim at Clinton more directly than ever. In a Washington Post interview over the weekend, he said Clinton was running a “desperate” campaign incapable of generating the kind of excitement his has. Sanders sharply questioned Clinton’s association with David Brock, who runs a pro-Clinton super PAC, repeatedly calling him a “hit man,” and he said he expects the Clinton campaign to throw “the kitchen sink” at him to try to blunt his momentum.
At the same time, Sanders has stepped up his attacks on Clinton for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from banking and corporate interests in the run-up to her 2016 campaign. He has singled out her payments from giant investment firm Goldman Sachs, suggesting that undercuts her ability to pursue serious Wall Street reform.
For O’Malley, Monday night represents a final chance to be seen as relevant before a national audience. Despite spending more time in Iowa than either Clinton or Sanders, O’Malley has remained mired in the single digits in polling.
Under the complicated rules of the Iowa caucuses, in most of the 1,681 precincts, a candidate must get 15 percent support to be considered viable. Otherwise, his supporters must align with another candidate or sit out the rest of the process.
Some longtime caucus-watchers think that dynamic could tip a close race in the direction of either Clinton or Sanders, depending on who is the more popular second choice of O’Malley supporters.