LAS VEGAS — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders squared off on stage for the first time at the center of the first 2016 Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday, as other contenders Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee sought to make a mark.
In the first exchange, Clinton offered light criticism of Sanders’ attacks on the excesses of capitalism, as he cited countries like Denmark as a model for the United States. On “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Sanders said that he was a Democratic socialist when asked whether he was a capitalist.
“When I think of capitalism, I think of all the small businesses that were started,” Clinton said, adding that “we are not Denmark. We are the United States of America.”
Sanders, however, said that his aim was not an attack on small business, but on what he called “casino capitalism,” a “rigged economy” where “57% of the income is going to the top 1%.”
But their contrast was more pronounced on another issue, as Clinton said that Sanders was not tough enough on gun violence, saying, “This has gone on too long, and it’s time that the entire country stood up against the NRA.”
Sanders defended his record, noting that he got a D- grade from the NRA, even though he voted against the Brady Bill in the 1990s. He suggested that what was needed was to find “common ground” on “common sense” gun legislation.
“I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states, whether we like it or not,” he said.
O’Malley also was critical of Sanders.
“Have you ever been to the Eastern Shore? Have you ever been to Western Maryland? We were able to pass this and still respect the hunting traditions of people who live in our rural states,” he said.
But Sanders came to Clinton’s defense later in the debate, when moderator Anderson Cooper asked about Clinton’s use of a private email server. She said that it was not “the best choice,” but said that a House committee was politically motivated.
“I think the Secretary is right… The American public is sick of hearing about your damn emails,” Sanders said, drawing the biggest applause of the night.
Webb, a former Secretary of the Army and senator from Virginia, was critical of the Obama administration’s engagement in Libya, and said that the biggest national security threat was coming from China. O’Malley was critical of a breakdown in national security intelligence.
Much of the pre-debate attention was on the interaction of Clinton, who entered the race as the presumptive front-runner, and Sanders, the insurgent whose campaign has defied expectations. But O’Malley has sought to present himself as a governor and mayor who put progressive ideas into action.
At the Wynn Las Vegas, where the debate is being held, about 450 members of the media had been assigned to press seats, with hotel waiters wandering through the work spaces offering cake pops. In the spin room, where campaigns will gather after the debate to offer their analysis, Facebook, a debate co-sponsor, had set up a makeshift lounge offering food, snacks and swag.
CNN was not expecting an audience even approaching the 23.1 million who tuned in to the Sept. 16 Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, record ratings that were fueled by the candidacy of Donald Trump.
Still, Trump’s presence loomed over the Democratic event. The Trump International Hotel is just down the street from the Wynn, and Trump vowed to offer his real-time commentary via Twitter.
“Everybody’s talking about my doing Twitter during the likely very boring debate tonight,” Trump crowed Tuesday afternoon.
Clinton responded, also on Twitter, “Glad you’ll be watching. It’s going to be ‘huge.'”
On Monday, she attended a rally in front of the Trump Hotel in support of Culinary Union workers seeking to organize.
According to Zignal Labs, which tracks social and traditional media mentions, as of 4 p.m., there were 33,000 tweets using the hashtag #DemDebate. Trump was still the third most-mentioned candidate.
The debate also drew a share of Las Vegas figures, like Wayne Newton, who is not a Democrat and has expressed support for Trump. Steve Wynn, the namesake of the tony hotel and resort, has made contributions to the campaign of another Republican, Marco Rubio.