Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., participate in a primary debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, January 17, 2016. Thursday, the pair are set to go head-to-head for the first time at a debate in New Hampshire, a few days before the state's key primary vote. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo
DURHAM, N.C., Feb. 4 (UPI) -- Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders went head-to-head for the first time in a debate Thursday, challenging each other over who is the most progressive Democratic candidate.
Both candidates engaged in some soul-searching as to what the term "progressive" means, spurred by remarks Sanders made earlier this week implying Clinton was progressive "some days."
"Sen. Sanders and I share some pretty big progressive goals," Clinton said, before launching into criticism of Sanders' plan to institute universal healthcare.
"Well, I haven't quite run for president before," Sanders shot back, earning jeers from the audience.
Clinton repeated a catch phrase she's often used in recent days, even during a town hall discussion hosted by CNN Wednesday night.
"I am a progressive who gets things done," she said.
Sanders was asked about his recent statements that Clinton's speaking fees from Goldman Sachs imply she's beholden to Wall Street.
"Demand a government that represents us and not just a handful of campaign contributors," he said. "All the ideas I'm talking about, they're not radical ideas."
Sanders again tackled the theme of the night when discussing whether he considered President Barack Obama a progressive. Sanders said he considered Obama progressive, though "I disagree with him on a number of issues, including the trade deal," referring to the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership.
Things turned tense between the two candidates as the debate over progressivism continued.
Clinton said the conversation should shift back to the issues, and Sanders agreed. Clinton shot back with little more than "you started it."
The conversation navigated back to Wall Street, with Clinton on the offensive, telling Sanders: "If you've got something to say then say it."
"I think it's time to end the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out in recent weeks and lets talk about the issues," she said.
The crowd booed in response.
Sanders fired back, referring to the deregulation of Wall Street.
"There is a reason that these people are putting huge amounts of money into our political system," he said, referring to big banks.
The first segment of the debate was characterized by these fiery exchanges, but when both candidates were asked to buckle down and deliver policy stances, the tone became more civil, with Sanders and Clinton often agreeing with each other.
Regulating Wall Street is one of Sanders' pet issues, but Clinton worked hard to position herself as more of a foe to the financial sector.
Sanders was asked about his Wall Street plan, which aims to break up banks deemed too big to fail.
"I think if Teddy Roosevelt were alive today -- good Republican, by the way -- he would say 'break them up,'" Sanders said. Clinton replied that breaking up such banks -- as is allowed under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act -- wasn't enough.
Bringing the topic back to Clinton's paid speeches, moderator Chuck Todd asked whether Clinton would be willing to release transcripts of speeches she's given to companies like Goldman Sachs.
"I will look into it," she said, stressing that Wall Street was just "one street."
"It's not just one street," Sanders replied. "In my view, the business model of Wall Street is fraud."
Sanders and Clinton weathered several questions about Middle East policy, North Korea and national security, all topics some critics say are weak points for Sanders.
On their strategy to combat the Islamic State, they offered similar plans. Both opposed American combat troops in Syria and both called for supporting Kurdish military and other forces already on the ground in the region.
More than once, though, Sanders tried to point out one key difference between the two: Sanders voted against the authorization for use of military force in Iraq, which Clinton -- while a senator -- voted for.
"It gives me no pleasure to tell you much of what I feared would happen the day after Suddam Hussein was overthrown has come true," Sanders said.
"A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat [the Islamic State]," Clinton shot back quickly.
When it came to ground troops left over in Afghanistan, Sanders said an eventual plan to withdraw was important. He agreed with King Abdullah II of Jordan, who said that the battle against the Islamic State was a battle for the "soul of Islam."
"For a dozen different reasons ... the combat on the ground must be done by Muslim troops," Sanders said.
Clinton offered a more specific answer, touching on U.S. support from Afghanistan's government.
Sanders was asked whether he had enough national security or foreign policy experience to be president.
"Experience is not the only point, judgement is," he replied, pointing again to the fact that Clinton voted to invade Iraq.
Clinton, meanwhile, brought up a letter put out by her campaign and signed by several current and former national security advisers raising concerns about Sanders' proposal to normalize relations with Iran.
She touted her experience with foreign policy, saying that if the United States moved to normalize relations with Iran, it would take away a big negotiating tool.
"Who said I think we should normalize relations with Iran tomorrow? I didn't say that," Sanders replied.
He said no one would have ever thought the United States would normalize relations with Cuba. He also pointed out that when Clinton ran against then-Sen. Obama in 2007, she called him "naive" for saying he would open dialogue with nations like Iran.
Sanders was then asked which countries were foreign policy priorities: Russia, North Korea and China. Sanders interrupted Todd and said the Islamic State was not on the list. Forced to choose, Sanders picked North Korea as his top priority.
"I worry very much about an isolated paranoid country with atomic bombs," he said. "Russia lives in the world, China lives in the world."
Clinton agreed, but also said her priority would be Russia.
"We have to send a very clear message to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, that this kind of belligerence, this kind of testing of boundaries, must be responded to," she said, referring to the Russian annexation of Crimea and tensions with Ukraine.
Both candidates dismissed the idea of privatizing the Department of Veteran Affairs, and both agreed the notion could be traced back to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, who funded a group called Concerned Veterans for America.
Sanders slammed Senate Republicans who failed to pass two bills he sponsored that would have expanded access to healthcare for veterans.
"Republicans talk a good game about veterans," he said.
The death penalty
Moderator Rachel Maddow asked Clinton about her support for the death penalty, despite her desire for the Supreme Court to outlaw it.
"I do reserve it for particularly heinous crimes, like terrorism," Clinton said, citing Timothy McVeigh, who was sentenced to death for the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995. "But I deeply disagree with the way that too many state are implementing it."
Sanders said he would not make such an exception.
"Of course there are barbaric acts out there, in a world with so much violence and killing, I just don't believe government should be a part of the killing," he said.
Flint, Mich., water crisis
Both weighed in on the water crisis in Flint. Clinton mentioned she would visit the city this weekend at the behest of Mayor Karen Weaver. Both said as president, they would order a federal response.
"This is an emergency," she said.
Sanders similarly came down hard on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
"I don't go around asking for governors' resignations every day, in fact I never have in my life," he said. "What we are talking about is children being poisoned."
Both candidates opposed the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership. Todd noted Clinton has shifted her stances on trade over the years.
Clinton said she was for trade -- "we have to trade with the rest of the world" -- though she felt the TPP did not have a sufficient "safety net" for American workers.
Todd asked Sanders his stance on the agreement, noting that Sanders has never supported any trade agreement while in the Senate.
"I believe in trade, but I do not believe in unfettered free trade, I believe in fair trade," he said.
"I was not only in opposition to NAFTA, I was on the picket line in opposition to NAFTA."
The State Department recently elected to withhold 22 emails, classified as "top secret," something Clinton said didn't affect support for her campaign.
"I never sent any classified material, they are retroactively classifying it," she said. "I have absolutely no concerns about it whatsoever."
She also pointed out that former secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were found guilty of the same practice, a revelation brought to light by the State Department earlier Thursday.
"If there's gonna be a security review on me, there's going to have to be a security review on a whole lot of other people including Republican office holders," Clinton said.
Sanders reiterated that he does not care about Clinton's email saga, saying: "I refuse to politicize it."
Thursday's debate was the first of four newly announced debates sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. Without the additions, Sanders and Clinton would have had two more chances to debate before the end of primary season.
Ahead of Tuesday's primary vote in New Hampshire, Sanders holds a comfortable 30-point lead over Clinton in the state. However, he may face deeper challenges down the road.
Good showings in predominantly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire boost Sanders' momentum among white Democrats, but do little to chip away at Clinton's lead among minority voters. Those voting blocs will be a challenge for Sanders in the Nevada and South Carolina primaries in the weeks to come.
On the flip side, Clinton has some catching up to do when it comes to appealing to younger voters. According to Iowa caucus entrance polls, Sanders is popular with voters under 30 while Clinton receives solid support from voters over the age of 45.