Hillary Clinton defended herself against criticism that she has been willing to shift positions for political expediency as several lesser-known challengers — including former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley — used the first Democratic presidential debate Tuesday to subtly question her commitment to progressive principles.
Clinton — the former first lady, senator and secretary of state who has led polls for the Democratic nomination since entering the race — methodically pushed back on questions from all sides about her recent opposition to a pending Pacific Rim trade deal that she previously supported, as well as her evolving stances on gay marriage and immigration.
"I don't take a back seat to anyone when it comes to progressive experience and progressive commitment," said Clinton, debating for the first time since her unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2008. "I'm a progressive, but I'm a progressive who likes to get things done."
Clinton, O'Malley and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont were among the five candidates on stage in Las Vegas for the debate, which was broadcast to millions of voters less than four months before the Iowa caucuses mark the beginning of the presidential primary voting season.
Clinton and Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, have dominated early polling, and much of the debate focused on the dynamic between those two candidates. Sanders, a political independent who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, predicted that the nation's divided electorate would look past his "socialist" label as he noted the large crowds that have been turning out at his campaign events.
Sanders has appealed to some of the same liberal voters who propelled President Barack Obama to victory against Clinton in 2008. He has criticized the front-runner for her recent stances on trade, Wall Street regulation and campaign finance, which have not always synced with her long record in the Senate and as a central figure in President Bill Clinton's administration.
But it was the Vermont Democrat who was occasionally put on defense by both Clinton and O'Malley, including for his more centrist stance on gun control. In one of the more heated exchanges, O'Malley blamed recent victims of mass shootings on a Congress that has been co-opted by the gun lobby.
"You have not been in the United States Congress," Sanders said to O'Malley.
"Well," the former governor shot back, "maybe that's a healthy thing."
Clinton also went after Sanders, noting his indirect answer to a question about whether he is a capitalist.
"I think what Senator Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in the terms of the inequality that we have," Clinton said. "But we are not Denmark."
O'Malley, for his part, was forced to defend his tenure as Baltimore's mayor. His record in the city has been undercut nationally by the April riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray. Some saw the underlying tension in Baltimore as an outgrowth of the more aggressive crime fighting he ushered in as mayor in the early 2000s.
O'Malley was asked by CNN's Anderson Cooper about policing in the city, and whether that approach contributed to the riots.
"Look, none of this is easy," O'Malley said. "None of us have all the answers, but together as a city we saved a lot of lives."
At least one Democratic strategist said O'Malley handled the question well.
"He took an aggressive question on Baltimore and made it his own," said consultant Brad Bannon. "He also did a good job pinning Sanders down on guns."
The rivalry between Sanders and Clinton has left little room for second-tier candidates O'Malley and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb to break through. Those Democrats, along with former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, have failed to climb out of single digits in early state polling.
But for millions of voters who have not paid attention to the race, the debate offered an introduction to the lesser-known candidates. In the days leading up to the event, O'Malley aides stressed the idea that the race for the nomination was beginning anew this week.
The former governor appeared to have a good night on the debate stage, including with a closing statement that even some Republicans praised. He also received loud applause when he answered a question about the enemy he is most proud of by noting the National Rifle Association.
"I truly believe that we are standing on the threshold of a new era of American progress," O'Malley said in the final moments. "We need to speak to the goodness within our country."
Whether his performance was enough to lift his campaign out of single digits won't be clear for several days. Clinton also had a strong performance, several observers said.
"Hillary Clinton is having a great night," said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "She's taken on Sanders when many assumed she wouldn't."
Hanging silently over the stage — and the race — was the question of whether Vice President Joe Biden would mount a campaign. Biden, who has been flirting with a late entry into the contest despite the recent loss of his son, has support from 17 percent of Americans in the Real Clear Politics polling average. He is expected to make a decision within a few days.
Elected statewide in 2006, O'Malley worked with the Democratic-controlled legislature to pass a host of progressive priorities, including the legalization of same-sex marriage, stricter gun control and laws aimed at helping immigrants in the country illegally.
But voters last November chose to replace him with Gov. Larry Hogan — the first Republican to win in Maryland in 12 years — in an election some viewed as a rejection of the tax increases ushered in by O'Malley. About 2 percent of Democratic voters in Maryland say they would support O'Malley, in a Goucher College poll this month showed.
In recent weeks Sanders and O'Malley have ramped up criticism of Clinton, noting that her opposition to the Pacific Rim trade agreement under negotiation by the Obama administration followed her past support for the deal. The trade pact is opposed by labor unions, environmentalists and other Democrat-leaning groups.
Asked about the controversial agreement, Clinton said her opposition developed as details of the agreement were disclosed this year.
"It didn't meet my standard," Clinton said of the pact. "I have a range of views, but they are rooted in my values and my experience."
The Democratic Party has sanctioned six debates. O'Malley has called on party leaders to double that number. The candidates will next debate in Iowa on Nov. 14.
Clinton appeared successful at defusing, at least for now, at least one controversial issue: Her use of a private email server during her tenure at the State Department. She received an unexpected assist from Sanders in that effort.
"The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails," Sanders exclaimed as the crowd in Las Vegas roared with applause. A smiling Clinton reached over to shake his hand and said, "Thank you, Bernie."