Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, whose presidential campaign has struggled to gain a foothold, offered an unusually aggressive pitch in the second Democratic debate on Saturday, repeatedly criticizing front-runner Hillary Clinton.
After a somber discussion of the terror attacks in Paris, the three candidates quickly drew distinctions over Wall Street regulation, the minimum wage and what role U.S. policy has played in allowing extremist groups like the Islamic State to grow.
O'Malley, a two-term Maryland governor with little foreign policy experience, leveled his first shot at Clinton, the former secretary of state, by appearing to disagree with her assertion that dealing with ISIS "cannot be an American fight."
"This actually is America's fight," O'Malley responded, staking out a more hawkish tone than he has previously. "It cannot solely be America's fight. … We must rise to this occasion in collaboration and with alliances to confront it."
Despite a solid performance in the first debate last month, and several subsequent high-profile appearances in early primary states, O'Malley has continued to campaign in the shadow of both Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — a distant third-place candidate who has not managed to break out of single digits in polling anywhere.
In that sense, the sharper tone on Saturday — a departure from the more gentle approach he has taken previously — was not a surprise.
O'Malley went after Clinton on gun control, suggesting she had been "on three sides" of the issue. And in a particularly direct exchange, he described the former New York senator's financial regulation policies as "weak tea."
"It is not what the people expect of our country," O'Malley said, speaking to Clinton. "We expect that our president will protect the main street economy from excesses on Wall Street."
Clinton fired back by criticizing O'Malley's choice of an investment banker in 2010 as the state's commissioner for financial regulation, an apparent reference to Mark Kaufman, who had worked for several banks before the nomination — a remarkably granular piece of insight into the operations of Maryland government.
"Well, you know, governor, I know that when you had a chance to appoint a commissioner for financial regulation, you chose an investment banker in 2010," Clinton said. "So for me, it is looking at what works and what we need to do to try to move past what happened in '08."
Despite the criticism from O'Malley and Sanders, the biggest hit on Clinton on the issue of Wall Street regulation appeared to be self-inflicted: Clinton suggested the industry is giving to her campaign because of the work she did to help New York City rebuild after the 2001 terror attacks, a notion that drew a follow up question before the debate was over.
O'Malley also faced criticism. During an exchange on gun control, Sanders — who has been under pressure on the issue — suggested the state had not benefited from the more strict gun laws O'Malley ushered in following the 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
"I think it's fair to say that Baltimore is not now one of the safest cities in America," Sanders said.
O'Malley, a former Baltimore mayor, touted his criminal justice reform proposals — and he was the first candidate to say that "black lives matter." He was not asked about his record on the issue, though, including a controversial policing strategy that allowed arrests to soar and that some believe harmed the relationship between the police and communities.
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The former governor's response to a question about the crises he has faced as a leader met with divided reaction. For her answer, Clinton noted the advice she had given President Barack Obama on the decision to launch the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
O'Malley answered the question next.
"I don't think that there is a crisis at the state or local level that really you can point to and say, therefore, I am prepared for the sort of crises that any man or woman who is commander in chief of our country has to deal with," O'Malley said.
"But I can tell you this. I can tell you that as a mayor and as a governor, I learned certain disciplines which I believe are directly applicable to that very powerful and most important of all jobs in the United States, the president, whose first and primary duty is to protect the people of our country."
Performances aside, it's not clear how much influence the CBS debate will have on the race: It aired on a Saturday night and coincided with a closely watched football game in Iowa between the Hawkeyes and the Minnesota Gophers.