DURHAM, N.H. — For months, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have campaigned against each other with a velvet touch, eager to distinguish their race for the Democratic presidential nomination from the combative contest taking place in the Republican primary.
The pair tangled again and again during their first one-on-one debate of the 2016 race, battling over who is the best liberal standard-bearer for a party that’s moved to the left during President Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House.
Clinton cast herself as a “progressive who gets things done.” Sanders attacked her as being part of a political “establishment” in the pocket of big Wall Street donors.
And that was just the start of it.
Here are four takeaways from Thursday night’s debate:
An “artful smear”
Eyebrows and voices were raised by both candidates as Clinton and Sanders targeted each other in a series of contentious exchanges. The subject more often than not was Wall Street.
Clinton called Sanders out for “attacks by insinuation” after he referenced the millions of dollars raised by an outside political group supporting Clinton’s campaign from donors with ties to the nation’s financial industry. She argued Sanders was saying that “anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought.”
She went on, “I think it’s time to end the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out.”
Video by CNN
It went both ways. When Clinton said Sanders voted against regulating some kinds of financial trades blamed for contributing to the Great Recession, the Vermont senator shot back that there was “nobody who fought harder” for such efforts.
“Go to YouTube today. Look up Greenspan-Sanders. Listen to what I told them then,” he said. “I helped lead the effort against deregulation.”
Joked moderator Rachel Maddow after that sharp exchange, “Obviously we touched a nerve.”
Who is more liberal? Or is it progressive?
The two Democratic candidates repeatedly argued over who was worthy of being considered the most progressive — the preferred term among some Democrats for “liberal.”
Asking if Obama should be considered a progressive, since he supports a major trade deal with Asian nations opposed by many liberals, Sanders turned the question around. The debate over progressivism, he said, started when he cited a comment Clinton made at a September campaign event when she said she was “guilty” of being a moderate.
“It wasn’t me paraphrasing her,” Sanders said. “It is what she said, and all that I said was there’s nothing wrong with being a moderate.”
Clinton fired back, saying Sanders was “cherry picking” quotes and accusing him of setting a liberal standard that Obama, Vice President Joe Biden or the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, a liberal icon, could not meet.
“You being the self-proclaimed gatekeeper for progressivism, I don’t know anyone else who fits that definition, but I know a lot of really hard-fighting progressives,” she said.
More on Wall Street
Clinton struggled when asked whether she would release transcripts of her paid speeches, many of which she made to Wall Street firms.
“I will look into it,” she told moderator Chuck Todd. “I don’t know the status, but I will certainly look into it.”
She later tried to push back on the criticism, saying contributions to her campaign have no impact on her positions. And besides, she added, Wall Street is only part of the problem. She would go after “a broader target list” as president, including oil and pharmaceutical companies.
Sanders wasn’t interested: “Wall Street is an entity of unbelievable economic and political power. That’s a fact.”
Many of the contracts for her speeches, drafted by her team, stipulated there would be limited public coverage of her comments. The Associated Press and numerous other media organizations have requested transcripts from her campaign, and have been rebuffed.
Foreign policy strength
On foreign policy, Sanders and Clinton agree: She has more experience. “That is not arguable,” Sanders said.
“But experience is not the only point, judgment is,” he said, noting as he often has during the campaign that Clinton voted to support the invasion of Iraq — and he did not.
But the former secretary of state was stronger at deflecting attacks on what amounted to her turf. She took viewers through a tour of the world’s toughest diplomatic disputes, even going so far as to surmise what current Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is trying to accomplish in Russia.
And she skillfully raised questions about Sanders’ command of foreign policy, turning around his argument about her Iraq war vote, cast more than a decade ago.
“A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS,” she said. “We have to look at the threats that we face right now.”