LAS VEGAS — The five Democrats vying for the presidential nomination sparred in their first debate Tuesday over how to control guns, crack down on Wall Street, and cope with the spread of Middle East violence, while steering clear of the personal attacks that have been a hallmark of the Republican exchanges.
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton held the spotlight for much of the debate. She appeared confident and assured even as she defended shifts in her position on issues including immigration, same-sex marriage, and trade deals.
“Like most human beings I do absorb new information,” Clinton said. “I do look at what is happening in the world.”
Clinton described herself as a “progressive who wants to get things done,” while strongly challenging Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont on his mixed record on gun control. Sanders and former governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland competed to be the most liberal candidates of the night, and both tried to paint Clinton as softer than themselves on Wall Street regulation.
In one of the more surprising moments of the debate, Sanders came to Clinton’s defense over her use, while secretary of state, of a private e-mail server. The e-mail controversy has dogged her campaign and led to sinking poll numbers.
Clinton, who has apologized for the decision, said during the debate that her setup “wasn’t the best choice” but said she wanted to focus on issues.
Sanders went further: “The American people are sick and tired about hearing about her damn e-mails,” he said, asking the debate moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN to focus on middle class issues.
“Enough of the e-mails,” Sanders said.
Clinton smiled broadly and shook Sanders’ hand. The exchange received some of the biggest applause of the night from the debate audience at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel, and the Sanders campaign immediately sent out a fund-raising e-mail with a video clip of the moment.
In other areas, though, the two clashed.
Sanders, standing on a stage just feet from one of the most lavish of Las Vegas casinos, said he does not consider himself to be part of the “casino capitalism” that he believes has caused yawning disparities between the rich and the poor. He suggested America has a lot to learn from countries like Denmark and Sweden.
Cooper asked if any others on the stage didn’t consider themselves to be capitalists.
Clinton took up the challenge and defended the country’s economic system.
She said it’s critical not to blame the entire system for the current excesses. “What we have to do every so often is save capitalism from itself,” she said.
The pair also clashed on guns. When asked if Sanders has done enough on gun control, Clinton gave a one-word answer: No.
Clinton noted that Sanders voted repeatedly against the Brady Bill, which required background checks, and that he voted for a measure to protect gun manufacturers from lawsuits in cases of shootings.
Sanders defended his positions, noting that he represents a rural state with a long hunting tradition.
“Bernie Sanders has a D-minus voting record from the NRA,’’ he said, adding that despite coming from Vermont, a pro-hunting state that he said has virtually no gun control laws, he has supported an assault weapons ban.
O’Malley was immediately confronted with his record as a onetime mayor of Baltimore. The zero-tolerance arrest policies that he pushed have been blamed for the erosion of trust between the police and the community that led to riots there in the spring.
His best moment came when he challenged Clinton on her Wall Street reform proposal that doesn’t include reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial banking from riskier activities undertaken by investment banks.
Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999 during the administration of President Bill Clinton.
O’Malley said the country is “still just as vulnerable” as it was during the Wall Street credit crisis.
“We need to reinstate Glass-Steagall and that’s a huge difference on this stage among us as candidates,” O’Malley said.
Clinton showed an occasion flash of humor. During a commercial break it took Clinton longer to return to the stage from the bathroom, a fact she attributed to her gender. “It takes me longer,” she said.
When asked late in the debate what would distinguish a Clinton presidency from the current administration, she answered simply: She’s a woman.
Former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee pointed out that he hasn’t had a single scandal in his lengthy time in public service, a not-so veiled swipe at Clinton, who has found herself mired in controversies.
But Chafee and former Virginia senator Jim Webb had far less airtime than the other candidates, which even drew a complaint from Webb: “Unless somebody mentions my name I can’t get into the discussion.”
Though not on the stage, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump injected himself into the conversation, via live tweeting during the debate.
“All are very scripted and rehearsed, two (at least) should not be on the stage,” Trump tweeted at one point.
In his opening remarks, Sanders appealed to the middle class, returning to his familiar campaign theme that the top 1 percent is thriving while everyday Americans are working longer hours for lower wages.
O’Malley cited his executive experience, pointing to his push to raise the minimum wage, promote gay marriage, and advance gun safety legislation.
Webb stressed his ‘‘record of working across the political aisle’’ in his opening statement, and highlighted his national security credentials.
Clinton entered the presidential race in April the same way she did eight years ago: with a mantle of inevitability. That mantle, though, frayed over the summer amid questions about why she used the private e-mail server when she was secretary of state.
At first, Clinton made light of the e-mail controversy, joking at an Iowa dinner that she liked to use the social media app Snapchat because the messages automatically disappear. When asked if she wiped information from her private server, she responded: “With a cloth?”
But as her poll numbers slid — at one point putting her in second place in both Iowa and New Hampshire — she changed course and apologized for her decision to use the server. The State Department is under a court order to release new batches of the e-mails she deemed public on a monthly schedule, guaranteeing a drumbeat of coverage.
Meanwhile, Sanders gained traction over the summer with a simple and consistent message of combating income inequality and special interests. The self-identified democratic socialist has seen tens of thousands of supporters flock to rallies in Boston, Phoenix, Denver, and other locales under the banner “Feeling the Bern.”
His rumpled and blunt style contrasts with Clinton’s polished look and carefully calibrated words. Conventional wisdom suggests that Sanders doesn’t come across “presidential” enough to attract voters, but this year has been different. The base of the most loyal voters in both parties has prized authenticity over polish.
And Sanders is collecting money to fund a campaign beyond the first few primary states. Federal campaign reports showed that Sanders nearly matched Clinton’s money juggernaut in the most recent quarter. Clinton raised $28 million from July through September, and Sanders brought in $26 million during the same period.
One person carefully watching the Sanders surge is Vice President Joe Biden, who has signaled that he might enter the race.
Though he’s not a declared candidate, pollsters have been adding him into their surveys, and he has remained consistently in third place.
Biden, who is mourning the death of his eldest son, has pushed back his decision several times but is soon coming up on hard deadlines to qualify for the ballots in early primary states.
A Draft Biden effort placed TV ads on CNN, a reminder that the Democratic field hasn’t been set and he could still shake up the race.
Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.