- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2015

LAS VEGAS — Hillary Rodham Clinton was taken to task in the first Democratic presidential debate here Tuesday for flip-flopping on issues, but she pushed back forcefully by saying she always remained true to her “values and principles.”

The sharpest attack on her flip-flopping record came from former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, one of the long-shot candidates who used his time on the debate stage at the Wynn Las Vegas hotel and casino to try to raise his profile.

He called out Mrs. Clinton for recently shifting positions to come out in opposition the Keystone XL oil pipeline in a move to cater to environmentalists and in opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership in an effort to appease unions.

Mrs. Clinton fired back: “Everybody on this stage has changed a position or two.” She said leaders change positions when they are “learning” information or when circumstances change.

“I’m not taking a back seat to anybody on my values, my principles or the results that I get,” Mrs. Clinton said.

She also refused to accept that her position on Keystone XL was new. “I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone,” she said.

SEE ALSO: Winners and losers in the first Democratic debate

Pressed by the moderator about whether she would “say anything to get elected,” Mrs. Clinton insisted that her views have been “very consistent.”

“Over the course of my entire life, I have always fought for the same values and principles, but, like most human beings — including those of us who run for office — I do absorb new information. I do look at what’s happening in the world,” she said.

Mrs. Clinton, who backed the trade deal as Mr. Obama’s secretary of state, said that she couldn’t render a verdict until the deal was finalized.

“It was just finally negotiated last week, and in looking at it, it didn’t meet my standards. My standards for more new, good jobs for Americans, for raising wages for Americans,” said. “I want to make sure that I can look into the eyes of any middle-class American and say, ‘This will help raise your wages.’ And I concluded I could not.”

Mrs. Clinton also moved strongly against Sen. Bernard Sanders, who has emerged as her chief challenger, jabbing him for being a socialist and for being weak on gun control.

In this way, Mrs. Clinton managed to move to the right of Mr. Sanders by portraying him as an anti-capitalist extremist and then to the left of him on fighting gun violence, which has emerged as a key issue for the party’s liberal base.

Mr. Sanders, a Vermont independent who describes himself as a “democratic socialist” and not a capitalist, explained his views by saying that the U.S. should learn from countries like Sweden and Denmark, which have socialized medicine and paid family leave for all workers.

“Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process? … No, I do not,” Mr. Sanders said at the debate, which was sponsored by CNN and Facebook.

Mrs. Clinton, the front-runner for the nomination who faces a surprisingly strong challenge from Mr. Sanders, leaped at that, saying capitalism is responsible for economic opportunities that built small businesses and helped create the strongest middle class in the world.

“I think what Sen. Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in terms of the inequality we have, but we are not Denmark,” Mrs. Clinton said, keeping her tone affable but stern.

When CNN moderator Anderson Cooper asked Mr. Sanders about his mixed voting record on gun control laws, Mrs. Clinton again seized the opportunity to land a blow.

Mr. Sanders explained that he supported gun control measures but also respected the tradition of hunting and support of gun rights in his home state of Vermont. That’s why he said he voted against the 1993 Brady Bill.

He also said he voted against a measure that would have allowed lawsuits against gun dealers and gun manufacturers for crimes involving their products because it was a “complicated” piece of legislation.

Mrs. Clinton pounced.

“It wasn’t that complicated to me. It was going to give immunity to the gun dealers,” said Mrs. Clinton, who recently proposed gun laws that included revoking the immunity.

Sen. Sanders did vote five times against the Brady Bill. Since it was passed, more than 2 million prohibited purchases have been prevented,” said Mrs. Clinton. She also accused Mr. Sanders of siding with gun manufacturers in scuttling a bill to make them face liability for gun crimes.

“Everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers?” she said.

While not mentioning any of his fellow candidates, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee kicked off the initial Democratic debate saying he is proud to have served three decades without any scandals.

“I have high ethical standards,” Mr. Chafee said in introducing himself — possibly to many voters not familiar with the obscure politician making a long-shot bid for the White House.

He spoke similarly in his closing statement.

But Mr. Sanders sprung to Mrs. Clinton’s defense on that issue, saying she shouldn’t have to answer any more questions about her unique email arrangement that has landed her under FBI investigation.

“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” he said, pleading with voters to move on to issues of income inequality.

Mrs. Clinton thanked Mr. Sanders, with whom she had sparred over guns and the extent of commitment to income inequality.

“Thank you Bernie,” she said, as the two beamed and shook hands.

Mrs. Clinton, while not offering an apology, said she did make “a mistake” in using a non-State.gov email account to conduct official business.

“I have been as transparent as I know to be, turning over 55,000 pages of my emails, asking that they be made public,” she said.

Mrs. Clinton also got a pass on the email from Mr. O’Malley and former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, but Mr. Chafee pressed the issue.

“There is an issue of American credibility out there,” he said. “I think we need someone who has the better ethical standards as our next president. That’s how I feel.”

When moderator Anderson Cooper asked Mrs. Clinton if she wanted to respond, she replied curtly: “No.”

Her ability to dismiss Mr. Chafee with a word underscored his low stature in the race and inability to gain any traction.

Mr. Webb also did little in the debate to improve his position in the race, as he repeatedly complained about the lack of time he was afforded to speak.

Earlier in the debate, Mr. Cooper also pressed Mrs. Clinton about her flip-flopping and asked her pointedly whether she would “say anything to get elected.”

He led off a unique field, where only two of the five candidates on the stage have been Democrats for most of their adult lives: Mrs. Clinton and Mr. O’Malley.

Mr. Chafee was a Republican senator before becoming an independent and now is running for the Democratic nomination, and Mr. Webb served in the Reagan administration before running for Congress as a Democrat. Mr. Sanders, meanwhile, has served for decades in Congress as an independent, though he always has caucused with the Democrats.

Mrs. Clinton walked onto the debate stage looking to steady her run and regain momentum after a grueling summer dominated by early campaign missteps and an expanding email scandal, which contributed to a stunning tumble in the polls and a majority of Americans now saying she is untrustworthy.

As she struggled to lay the email scandal to rest, she also turned off voters by appearing overly scripted and stage-managed in her public appearances and interviews.

The perception of inauthenticity could prove fatal for a campaign in an election cycle in which voters have been demanding authenticity and shying away from established politicians, a dynamic that boosted candidates such as Mr. Sanders and Republican front-runner Donald Trump.

Mrs. Clinton’s image problem prompted her handlers to attempt a relaunch in late summer with a series of appearances on TV talk shows and in a comedy routine on “Saturday Night Live” two weeks ago — all designed to showcase her funny and warm side.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sanders‘ leftist agenda and populist message caught fire with the Democratic Party’s liberal base. As the acknowledged socialist drew crowds of thousands at events across the country and surged in the polls in early-voting states, he forced Mrs. Clinton to move further and further left to shore up her support.

The latest polls show Mr. Sanders running close behind Mrs. Clinton in Iowa and defeating her in New Hampshire.

After decades as a political figure in neighboring Vermont, Mr. Sanders has a home-field advantage in New Hampshire. But his persistent lead in the Granite State, where Democratic voters gave her a crucial comeback victory in the 2008 primary race against Barack Obama, nevertheless rattled the Clinton campaign.

Mr. Sanders has led in every major poll of Democratic voters in New Hampshire since early August. The Real Clear Politics average of recent polls gave Mr. Sanders a 9-point lead over Mrs. Clinton.

He also proved himself a formidable competitor in the money race, raising $25 million — nearly as much as Mrs. Clinton’s $28 million — in the quarterly fundraising period that ended Sept. 30.

Mrs. Clinton still enjoys a huge lead in national polls, though not the sky-high number from when she entered the race. She led Mr. Sanders by 20 points in a Fox News poll released this week.

That poll also underscored another potential problem for Mrs. Clinton: a challenge by Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who has not announced whether he will get into the race but would enter as a top contender.

The poll showed Mr. Biden placing third behind Mr. Sanders. But he fared better than Mrs. Clinton in hypothetical matchups against top Republican presidential candidates, a dynamic that undercuts Mrs. Clinton’s argument that she is the Democratic Party’s best hope for retaining the White House.

By far, the biggest challenge for Mrs. Clinton this year has been the controversy surrounding her exclusive use of a private email account for official business as secretary of state, as well as the private server hosting the account that was kept in her home in Chappaqua, New York.

She tried repeatedly to explain that her unusual email setup was aboveboard, though it shielded her email from inquires by Congress and from requests under the Freedom of Information Act until congressional investigators discovered it.

The question about her private email and private server metastasized to include an FBI investigation into her handling of classified material that conceivably could lead to criminal charges.

When her email was first revealed by the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Mrs. Clinton said at a press conference that she “did not email classified material to anyone.” However, the State Department has found at least 400 messages deemed classified after reviewing about a third of the roughly 30,000 messages Mrs. Clinton belatedly turned over to the government.

The former first lady has responded by saying that the classified material was not marked as classified when she sent and received the messages. After much prodding, she said she was sorry and the email setup was a mistake, but she has insisted that what she did was allowed.

Mrs. Clinton and her Democratic allies have attempted to bury the issue by denouncing it as a smear job orchestrated by House Republicans and their Benghazi committee, before which Mrs. Clinton is scheduled to testify next week.

Mr. Obama delved into the email scandal this week in a TV interview. Despite the ongoing federal investigation, the president said that her email practices were a mistake but did not endanger national security.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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