GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — Bernie Sanders apologized to Hillary Clinton for his campaign’s breach of Clinton campaign voter data, using a debate Saturday night to begin tamping down an intense fight that has roiled the Democratic presidential contest.
“In this case, our staff did the wrong thing,” Sanders said.
“I apologize,” he said, directly addressing Clinton after he was prompted by a moderator. “I want to apologize to my supporters. This is not the type of campaign that we run.”
He also asked for a wider investigation into all instances of campaigns inappropriately accessing Democratic National Committee data, suggesting that Clinton’s campaign also looked at information that’s supposed to be secret.
“I’m not convinced that information from our campaign didn’t end up in their campaign,” Sanders said on stage at St. Anselms College. “Don’t know that.”
Clinton accepted the apology, and Clinton and Sanders both expressed a willingness to move on to more pressing matters, seeking to draw distinctions on gun control and Mideast policy, and especially slamming Republican primary front-runner Donald Trump.
The debate was the first time that the candidates, in a field rounded out by former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, have taken the stage since the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist shootings, and it came just six weeks before voting begins in Iowa.
As in earlier debates, all three presidential contenders stuck mostly to policy differences with far fewer of the personal attacks that continue to dominate the Republican primary contest. At one point during an exchange over health care, Sanders seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself.
“Now this is getting to be fun,” he said.
Clinton also seemed confident and comfortable. She even wrapped up her closing remarks with a reference to the newly released Star Wars movie. “Thank you, good night, and may the force be with you!” she said.
Some of the sharpest early exchanges came over gun control, when O’Malley, who is badly trailing in the polls, lobbed barbs at both his competitors.
“Secretary Clinton changes her position on this issue every election season, it seems,” he said.
He noted that Sanders voted against the Brady Bill, which required federal background checks for gun sales. “Let’s calm down a little bit, Martin,” Clinton said. She added: “Let’s tell the truth, Martin.”
Sanders also attacked Clinton on foreign policy, saying that she’s a “a little too into regime change” and “a little too aggressive” — and doesn’t think through what the unintended consequences are for toppling dictators.
It’s a line of attack used against Clinton by many Republicans, who are trying to blame her policies for the rise of the Islamic State.
Clinton hit back by pointing out times that Sanders voted to support regime change in Libya when a resolution came up in the Senate. “You joined the Senate in voting to get rid of Gadhafi, and you asked that there be a Security Council validation of that with a resolution,” Clinton said.
Clinton kept one eye on the general election and sought to score more early points against Trump than her Democratic opponents. Asked about Trump’s controversial call after the California terrorist shootings to block Muslims from entering the United States, she said the United States needs to be working with mainstream Muslims, not demonizing them.
“Mr. Trump has a great capacity to use bluster and bigotry to inflame people,” she said.
“He is becoming ISIS’s best recruiter,” she said, referring to the Islamic State.
ABC moderator David Muir sought to draw distinctions between the candidates on support from Wall Street and the financial services industry, asking Clinton if corporate America would love a President Clinton.
“Everybody should,” Clinton quipped. Then she offered an answer that was far softer than much of the harsh rhetoric that the primary candidates have directed toward big corporations. “I want to be the president for the struggling, the striving, and the successful,” she said.
When it was Sanders’ turn to answer whether corporate America would like his presidency, his answer was simple. “No, I think they won’t,” he said.
The debate included a few personal moments, during which the candidates were asked for the first time about their spouses, and what roles they might play in the White House. Clinton said she would still most likely pick out the flowers and the flatware for state dinners — even as president.
Sanders said his wife would have an office close to his in the West Wing, and O’Malley said it would be up to his wife to determine whether she would want to give up her job as a District Court judge in Baltimore to preside over the East Wing.
One of the most awkward moments came in the middle of the debate when Clinton was late returning to the stage, and the moderators started to ask a question about the economy without her.
When Clinton returned to the stage about 30 seconds into the question, she simply said, “Sorry” — offering the second apology of the Democratic debate.
Roiling beneath the surface of the debate, though, was the angst over a Democratic nomination process that Sanders and O’Malley have both said was rigged in favor of Clinton’s candidacy.
The back-and-forth between the two camps after the Sanders campaign data breach revealed fault lines that go far beyond policy differences and showed a deep anger from the ascendant antiestablishment wing of the party.
Sanders early in the debate criticized the DNC as meting out an “arbitrary” and “egregious” punishment to his campaign when it retaliated by temporarily cutting off its access to its own data.
In the view of the Sanders campaign, and in the minds of his fervent supporters, the DNC’s reaction to the breach proved their suspicions that the establishment Democrats will use any excuse to extinguish the liberal political movement Sanders has ignited. More than 500,000 people signed an online petition to the DNC demanding that the party restore access to the information.
“Progressives are justifiably outraged at what appears to be a power play by the Democratic establishment,” Robert Reich, who was labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, wrote in an e-mail to members of Democracy for America on Friday night.
The immediate concerns were solved by late Friday: Sanders again had access to key voter data that is considered the lifeblood of a modern campaign. One of the Sanders staffers was fired, and Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said Saturday that further disciplinary actions might be taken against the others.
Previous flare-ups within the Democratic field have come over the debate schedule, which the underdogs said seemed tilted in favor of Clinton: Only four were put on the calendar before voting begins in Iowa, and a total of six will be held. Three of the debates were set for weekends, when viewership tends to be lower.
Clinton still dominates in national polls, but surveys in New Hampshire show Sanders either ahead or tied with her.
In the last week, Sanders received key endorsements from the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America union. He also got a nod from the liberal group Democracy for America, whose founder — former Vermont governor Howard Dean — has endorsed Clinton.
Clinton has accumulated a slew of endorsements too — many from the federal, state, and local elected officials who are practiced in getting out the vote on Election Day. They include Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, who spent a few hours Saturday morning knocking on doors in Concord, N.H.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe in this candidate,” he said to Ryan McGonigle, a Concord resident who answered his door when the representative knocked. McGonigle listened politely to the pitch, and said he and his partner both hadn’t yet decided who to support. “We’re both on the fence,” he said. “This might be the most important election that we’ve had in a long time.”