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Democratic Debate Candidates Spar Over Wall Street Reform, Foreign Policy


The Democratic presidential debate opened with a moment of silence last night in honor of the victims in Paris. Then Hillary Clinton faced sharper criticism from Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley as the candidates tangled on foreign policy and the implications of the Paris attacks. Then they moved to domestic issues. Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The candidates were all in agreement on the attacks, expressing their determination that the U.S. should work with its allies to destroy ISIS. But that's where the consensus ended. Hillary Clinton was asked why her prescription for taking out ISIS in the future was credible if the Obama administration had underestimated the strength of ISIS in the past. Clinton pointed out this election would choose not just a president, but a commander in chief. And she put some distance between herself and President Obama, saying that she would have been more aggressive in Syria.


HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: With the revolution against Assad - and I did, early on, say we needed to try to find a way to train and equip moderates very early so that we would have a better idea of how to deal with Assad because I thought there would be extremist groups filling the vacuum.

LIASSON: Before the debate, there had been lots of speculation that foreign policy would be a difficult place for Bernie Sanders to attack Clinton. After all, she is the former secretary of state, and there had just been a massive terrorist attack, heightening voters' concerns about national security. But Sanders, who said he was not a great fan of regime change, didn't shy away from suggesting that Clinton's now repudiated vote for the war in Iraq was responsible for the mess that led to ISIS.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Are you making a direct link between her vote for that war and what's happening now for ISIS? Just so everybody can...

BERNIE SANDERS: Oh, I don't think, if any - I don't think any sensible person would disagree that the invasion of Iraq led to the massive level of instability we are seeing right now.

LIASSON: Sanders also went after Clinton on Wall Street reform when he was asked by moderator John Dickerson what he thought of her proposals.


SANDERS: Not good enough.


SANDERS: Look, here's the story. I mean, you know, let's not be naive about it. Why, over her political career, has Wall Street been a major - the major - campaign contributor to Hillary Clinton? Now, maybe they're dumb and they don't know what they're going to get. But I don't think so.

CLINTON: Well, John - John, wait a minute. Wait a minute.

SANDERS: Personal privilege.

JOHN DICKERSON: Governor - Secretary Clinton gets to respond.

CLINTON: Look, he has basically - he has basically used his answer to impugn my integrity. Let's be frank here.

SANDERS: No, I have not.

CLINTON: Oh, wait a minute, Senator. You know, not only do I have hundreds of thousands of donors - most of them small - and I'm very proud that for the first time, a majority of my donors are women - 60 percent.


LIASSON: The candidates were also asked how much they would raise taxes to pay for their ambitious domestic plans. Sanders' are estimated to cost $18.5 trillion.


SANDERS: We pay for this by due demanding that the wealthiest people and the largest corporations, who have gotten away with murder for years, start paying their fair share.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let's get specific. How high would you go? You've said before you'd go above 50 percent. How high?

SANDERS: We haven't come up with an exact number yet, but it will not be as high as the number under Dwight D. Eisenhower, which was 90 percent. But it will...


SANDERS: I'm not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower.


LIASSON: Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland who's been lagging in single digits, got a lot of applause when he turned the focus to the GOP during a discussion about immigration reform. That's a subject on which the three Democratic candidates have little disagreement. O'Malley repeated a line he's used many times before.


MARTIN O'MALLEY: The fact of the matter is - and let's say it in our debate 'cause you'll never hear this from that immigrant-bashing, carnival barker Donald Trump - the truth of the matter is...


O'MALLEY: The truth of the matter is net immigration from Mexico last year was zero. Fact check me. Go ahead, check it out.

LIASSON: Since the first Democratic debate, Clinton has solidified her position as the front-runner. She leads Sanders by double digits and O'Malley by up to 50 points. So Sanders was under a lot of pressure to do something that would slow her momentum. But he chose, once again, not to go after Clinton's ethics or judgment regarding her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.


SANDERS: I was sick and tired of Hillary Clinton's email. I am still sick and tired Hillary Clinton's email.

CLINTON: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Secretary Clinton, your response.

CLINTON: I agree completely.


CLINTON: I couldn't have said it better myself.

LIASSON: And that was a pretty good summary of the debate, feistier than the first but probably not enough to dislodge Clinton from her perch on top of the Democratic field. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.