Deep divisions between the Democratic presidential candidates opened up in New Hampshire on Saturday night, as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sparred over military intervention in the Middle East, healthcare, taxes and their support for big business.
In a third Democratic debate that many feared would be overshadowed byallegations of dirty tricks between the campaigns, the two frontrunners instead clashed more fiercely than usual on policy issues that will define the primary battle in the state.
“Now this is getting fun,” said Sanders as he claimed the former secretary of state was “disagreeing with the vast majority of progressive Democrats in the House and Senate” by ruling out tax increases.
“I don’t think a middle-class tax should be part of anybody’s plan right now,” Clinton shot back, in one of a series of feisty exchanges that clarified the significant ideological differences facing Democratic voters and also saw the frontrunner focus more on her likely opponents in a general election than the party’s Sanders-friendly progressive wing.
The starkest difference came in their assessment of the appropriate role for US forces in the Middle East, where Clinton said the US should lead efforts to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad alongside the fight against Islamic Statemilitants.
“Secretary Clinton and I have a fundamental disagreement: I am not quite the fan of regime change that I think she is,” said Sanders, more assertive on Saturday after shying away from foreign policy in previous debates. He linked Clinton’s support for the overthrow of leaders in Iraq and Libya to a history of failed US intervention overseas.
In turn, Clinton’s mastery of foreign policy saw her stand her ground passionately on issues that have also been seized upon by Republicans.
“I am not giving up on Libya and I don’t think anybody should,” she said. “Let’s remember why we became part of a coalition to stop [Libyan dictator Muammar] Gaddafi from committing atrocities against his people.”
The two also took up diametrically opposing views on how antagonistic a future president should be towards corporate America.
Asked by ABC moderator David Muir whether big business would like President Clinton, she replied: “Everybody should!”
“I want to be the president for the struggling, the striving and the successful,” she said. “If people in the private sector want to be part of our economy, then more power to them.”
Sanders responded: “The CEOs of large multinationals may like Hillary but they ain’t going to like me and Wall Street is going to like me even less.
“There are some great corporations trying to do the right thing [but] the greed of the billionaire class is destroying this economy and destroying the lives of millions of Americans.”
The third candidate, Martin O’Malley, called the debate a “healthy exchange of ideas” and contrasted it with the “anger and fear” of the Republican debate, but struggled to carve out a distinctive voice between the stark choices offered by the other two candidates.
The former Maryland governor also appeared wrong-footed when – in the opening minutes of Saturday night’s debate – Clinton and Sanders quickly dispatched any dispute over his campaign’s breach of her campaign’s voter data.
“Yes, I apologize,” Sanders said, responding to a question from ABC anchor David Muir. “I want to apologize to my supporters. This is not the type of campaign that we run – and if I find anyone else involved in this they will also be fired.”
The conflict arose after members of Sanders’ campaign were found to haveimproperly accessed, searched and stored confidential data belonging to the Clinton campaign during an hours-long software glitch.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) responded by cutting off its access to the all-important voter file, without which an effective presidential campaign cannot be run.
The Sanders campaign accused the DNC of weighting the scale in Clinton’s favor and filed a lawsuit against the national party, the culmination of months of frustration between the underdog candidate and the DNC. Hours later, the DNC agreed to restore Sanders’ campaign access to the database.
A war of words escalated between to the two campaigns, with top aides to Clinton accusing the Sanders campaign of theft and suggesting it may have broken the law. But on Saturday, Clinton chose to quickly put the dispute behind them.
“I very much appreciate that comment, Bernie, it is very important that we go forward on this,” she said.
With a nod to the first debate when Sanders absolved her and declared that America is “sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails”, Clinton said: “We should move on, because I don’t think the American people are all that interested in this.”
The Sanders campaign suspended two staffers on Saturday in connection with the data breach, campaign manager Jeff Weaver said after the debate. The campaign had already fired a senior official, national data director Josh Uretsky, for gaining access to Clinton’s voter data.
Weaver said the suspensions were the result of further investigation, and criticized the DNC for initially withholding information that might have helped the probe move more quickly.
Asked if the conciliatory exchange during the debate marked an end to the public feuding between the two campaigns over the breach, Weaver said: “The candidates always set the tone.”
Though the debate focused heavily on issues of foreign policy and national security, there were also moments of levity. When asked about the role of the president’s spouse, Clinton commended Michelle Obama for her work as first lady.
But if elected, Clinton said she is “probably still going to pick the flowers and the china”.
Sanders said his wife, Jane, would certainly have a desk in the West Wing because “she’s a lot smarter than me”. O’Malley was asked if his wife, Katie, would have to give up her job as a district attorney in Maryland. He replied: “Katie O’Malley will do what Katie O’Malley wants to do.”
“Thank you, good night, and may the force be with you,” Clinton concluded.