DES MOINES — The Democratic candidates had tough words for the Islamic State during their debate Saturday night, delving deeply into national security for the first time in the campaign in the wake of the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris.
Hillary Clinton, the former US secretary of state, said the Islamic State "cannot be contained, it must be defeated." She added that military force should be a "last resort" — a nod to a Democratic audience that's been skeptical of another conflict in the Middle East.
US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont also struck a tough stance on the Islamic State, saying, "Together, leading the world, this country will rid our planet of this barbarous organization called ISIS." He made clear other Middle Eastern nations should shoulder much of the burden.
A series of coordinated attacks in Paris neighborhoods Friday night left at least 100 dead and injured hundreds more — putting foreign policy at the forefront of the 2016 Democratic campaign for the first time. President Francois Hollande of France called the violent rampage "an act of war" by the Islamic State.
Clinton noted that she split with President Obama in the early stages of the Syrian civil war, pressing to send weapons to moderate rebels. Obama chose not to do this, fearing the weapons would end up in the hands of terrorists.
Sanders sought to tie the rise of the Islamic State to the 2002 invasion of Iraq, a move that he opposed and Clinton voted to support when she was a US senator.
"Regime changes have unintended consequences," Sanders said. "On this issue, I'm a little more conservative than the secretary."
Officials from CBS, which hosted the debate at Drake University, scrambled to rewrite debate questions focused on national security after Friday's attacks.
In the previous Democratic debate, terror came up three times, and the Islamic State was referenced once. Sanders, when asked about the biggest national security threat during that October debate, listed only the "global challenge of climate change." (He confirmed this position again Saturday evening.)
CBS's "Face the Nation" anchor John Dickerson moderated the second debate and started the exchange with a moment of silence.
The opening 30 minutes gave Clinton a chance to show off her foreign policy chops, offering detailed answers that gave a rhetorical tour of the past decade of Middle East conflicts. "This election isn't only about electing a president; it is about choosing our next commander-in-chief," Clinton said.
Clinton also reaffirmed her view that the US should accept 65,000 Syrian refugees — but "only if we have as careful a screening and vetting process as it takes," she said.
The balance of the debate moved back to more of the standard fare from the Democratic contest. Clinton defended her support for a $12 minimum wage, while the other two candidates want a $15 floor for wages. She said that her position is backed by economists.
"I think we need to stop taking our advice from economists on Wall Street," said former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley.
O'Malley, who has been lagging in the polls, took on Clinton on her ties to the financial services industry — offering up some of the sharpest exchanges in the two-hour debate.
"I won't be taking my orders from Wall Street," O'Malley said. He called her Wall Street reform proposal "weak tea" because it doesn't include a reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act that separated the more risky investment banking functions from commercial banking.
Sanders also hammered Clinton on her ties to Wall Street, noting that she's received millions of dollars in campaign donations from bankers over her career.
"Why do they make millions of dollars in campaign contributions?" Sanders said. "They expect to get something. Everyone knows that."
Clinton shot back that 60 percent of her donors are women. She also sought to link her support from Wall Street to her work in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to rebuild that part of the city. Clinton was later pressed on this point and tried to walk back the connection between her work after the terrorist attacks and her Wall Street donations — saying she was misunderstood.
Clinton, as she has in the past, attacked Sanders on his vote to indemnify gun manufacturers from lawsuits in shootings — and rules that she said delivered more power to the gun lobby.
The stage Saturday was less crowded than the last debate in mid-October. Clinton was widely viewed as the winner of that debate, and two Democratic contenders, former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee and former US senator Jim Webb of Virginia, dropped out days after that exchange. Vice President Joe Biden elected not to join the race shortly after the debate.
That left essentially a binary contest between Clinton and the insurgent Sanders, with O'Malley trailing badly in the polls and unable to gain traction.
The smaller group benefited O'Malley, who was able to inject a number of memorable lines in the exchanges. While discussing student debt, he noted that he was proud of his daughters for graduating from college — and, referring the debt incurred to pay for their education, added: "We're going to be proud every day for the rest of our natural lives."
In some points, Clinton seemed to embrace her age, which could be a weakness if she faces Florida Senator Marco Rubio or Texas Senator Ted Cruz in the general election. "I come from the sixties," she said.
Later, when talking about her approach to health care reform, she sounded a bit resigned.
"I waited for revolution," she said. "Revolution never came."
Over the past month, Clinton saw her lead expand among Democrats both in national polls and surveys of Iowa voters. Sanders and Clinton are statistically tied in the most recent set of New Hampshire primary polls.
To stanch his losses, Sanders launched his first round of television commercials earlier this month in Iowa and New Hampshire. The ads are mostly biographical and tout Sanders as an "honest leader" — a dig at Clinton, whom critics paint as "untrustworthy."
He also stepped up his attacks on Clinton on the stump, drawing clearer distinctions between his liberal record and her shifts on major issues including gay rights, the environment, and trade. During an editorial board meeting at The Boston Globe, Sanders declared that he and Clinton disagree on "virtually everything."
The debate is the second of four Democratic exchanges scheduled before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1. Viewership for the first exceeded 15 million viewers. That set a record for a Democratic primary debate, though it lagged behind the 24 million who tuned in for the first Republican debate.
The time slot — a Saturday evening — does not typically draw a large audience. The next two Democratic debates are also set for weekends: One is scheduled for the Saturday before Christmas, and the next is set for the Sunday of the Martin Luther King long weekend in January.
O'Malley has complained that the abbreviated schedule is "rigged" in favor of Clinton because it affords precious little national exposure for undercard candidates.