Just three candidates took the stage for Saturday night's third Democratic presidential debate, in what many saw as a critical moment for the contenders before their first state contests in Iowa and New Hampshire begin.
In the event hosted by ABC News, frontrunner Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Gov. Martin O’Malley sparred on domestic policy, national security, and the Sanders campaign's improper access of Clinton’s voter data.
Many were anticipating Sanders’s response to the data breach of Clinton’s campaign, which Clinton’s staffers called an “egregious breach of data and ethics.” The subject, however, passed almost as quickly as it started.
“Yes, I apologize,” Sanders said when asked whether he owed Clinton an apology. “Not only do I apologize, I want to apologize to my supporters. This is not the kind of campaign that we run.”
But the main focus on the debate – for Hillary Clinton – was the Republican Party, especially Donald Trump.
"It's very clear that we have a distinct difference between those of us on this stage tonight and all of our Republican counterparts," Clinton said. "From my perspective, we have to prevent the Republicans from rolling back the progress that we've made."
Clinton was quick to jump on Trump’s anti-Muslim backlash, and strongly condemned any Islamophobic rhetoric.
“I worry greatly that the rhetoric coming from 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,” Ms. Clinton said. “That there is some kind of Western plot or even war against Islam, which then, I believe, fans the flames of radicalization.”
For Sanders, Clinton’s main competitor, little has changed from his previous stance on what he calls “establishment politics and establishment economics” and the nation’s “rigged economy.”
But as Patrick Healy wrote for The New York Times, Sanders's message, now appears "lost in a fog of fear."
Americans are more anxious about terrorism than income inequality. They want the government to target the Islamic State more than Wall Street executives and health insurers. All of this plays to Mrs. Clinton’s strengths – not only as a hawkish former secretary of state but also as a savvy politician who follows the public mood. After months of pivoting to the left on domestic issues to compete with Mr. Sanders for her party’s base, she is now talking about security and safety far more than Mr. Sanders – and solidifying her lead in opinion polls.
The topic of security and ISIS, which was the main focus on the most recent G.O.P debate following the San Bernardino shooting and Paris attacks, came as less of a priority in this debate, which largely discussed income inequality and domestic policy.
“I’m running for president because I’m going to create an economy that works for working families, not just a handful of billionaires,” Sanders said.
Clinton, who has been accused of being more open to Wall Street vote, defended herself, insisting that she wants to speak for all Americans. “I have said that I want to be the president for the struggling, the striving, and the successful,” she said.
Martin O’Malley, who has fallen far behind Sanders and Clinton in public opinion polls and fundraising, strove to stand out, blaming Clinton and Sanders for failing to push for more restrictive gun control measures.
“ISIL training videos are telling lone wolves the easiest way to buy a combat assault weapon in America is at a gun show, and it’s because of the flip-flopping political approach of Washington that both of my two colleagues on the stage have represented there for the last 40 years,” O’Malley said.
The next Democratic debate is scheduled for January 17th in South Carolina.