Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had set out to use the second Democratic presidential debate to portray herself as the strongest potential commander in chief while France reeled from terror attacks, instead found herself pummeled by rivals on Saturday over her ties to Wall Street and her foreign policy record.
The debate in Des Moines opened with Mrs. Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Martin O’Malley bowing their heads to observe a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the attacks in Paris on Friday. And, at least at first, the three remaining Democratic candidates seemed acutely aware that traditional political punches could seem petty in the aftermath of the bloodshed.
But then Mr. Sanders and Mr. O’Malley unleashed pointed, yet polite, critiques of Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy stances, including her 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq, which Mr. Sanders tied to the rise of the Islamic State, which officials in Paris have said was responsible for the attacks.
“Let me have one area of disagreement with the secretary,” Mr. Sanders said gingerly, as if on eggshells to lob an attack at a somber moment. “I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq — something that I strongly opposed — has unraveled the region completely and led to the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS.”
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Mr. O’Malley, meanwhile, painted a dark portrait of Middle East policy under the Obama administration, in which Mrs. Clinton spent four years as secretary of state. “Libya is a mess. Syria is a mess. Iraq is a mess. Afghanistan is a mess,” he said.
Without directly calling her opponents naïve, Mrs. Clinton responded by listing decades of granular foreign policy developments that she said contributed to the current crisis. “If we’re ever going to really tackle the problems posed by jihadi extreme terrorism, we need to understand it and realize that it has antecedents to what happened in Iraq,” she said.
But she grew increasingly defensive as the evening progressed and the topics drifted to domestic issues. Mr. Sanders and Mr. O’Malley both criticized her ties to the financial industry and argued that her policies would not go far enough to rein in the Wall Street excesses that led to the 2008 financial crisis.
“Let’s not be naïve about it,” an increasingly animated Mr. Sanders said. “Why over her political career has Wall Street been 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.”
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Mrs. Clinton called the implication an attack on her character and won applause by noting that the majority of her donors were women who made small-dollar donations. “He has basically used his answer to impugn my integrity, let’s be frank here,” she said, winning applause.
She seemed to link her contributions from the financial industry to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, noting that she spent considerable time as a senator from New York working to rebuild Lower Manhattan, where many banks are — an argument that left some viewers perplexed.
Later in the debate, when a voter asked via Twitter what working to rebuild New York had to do with receiving contributions from financial institutions, Mrs. Clinton sought to clarify her remarks. “I’m sorry that whoever tweeted that had that impression,” she said.
The attacks on Mrs. Clinton were notably harsher than in the first Democratic debate last month, an illustration of the growing pressure her two rivals feel to differentiate themselves as she tightens her hold on the Democratic race.
Mr. Sanders tried repeatedly to return the conversation to income inequality, an area where he has galvanized voters with his populist message. He drew brief laughter when he said he was not sure yet exactly how much he would increase taxes on the rich, but he promised not to raise rates as high as the 90 percent level that existed during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican.
Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, focused her opening statement on national security. “All the other issues we want to deal with depend on us being secure and strong,” she said.
According to a New York Times-CBS News poll released on Thursday, 53 percent of Democrats said they were “very confident” in the former secretary of state’s ability to handle an international crisis, compared with 16 percent who said the same about Mr. Sanders.
But with Mrs. Clinton’s experience also came pitfalls, which were on stark display onstage at the 775-seat Sheslow Auditorium at Drake University in Des Moines on Saturday, where a young woman outside held a poster that depicted a peace symbol with the Eiffel Tower in the center.
Mrs. Clinton has further solidified her support among Democrats after her testimony before a congressional committee investigating the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. But the testimony highlighted wider questions about Mrs. Clinton’s tenure at the State Department, namely her insistence that the White House join a NATO-led coalition to oust Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, a move that is widely seen as contributing to the chaos and instability in region.
Asked if he had any disagreements with her record as secretary of state, Mr. Sanders said “I am not a great fan of regime change.”
Mr. O’Malley, who stood out in Saturday’s debate with only three candidates competing for airtime, also assailed Mrs. Clinton’s push to intervene in Libya. “We need to be much more far-thinking in this new 21st-century era of nation state failures and conflict,” he said. “It’s not just about getting rid of a single dictator.”
Mrs. Clinton defended her decision to back the ouster of Colonel Qaddafi, who, she said, “probably had more blood on his hands of Americans than anybody.”
When the discussion shifted to gun control, Mr. Sanders became the subject of attacks and he appeared better equipped to defend himself on the issue than he had in the first debate.
After Mrs. Clinton suggested last month that he was using sexist language in the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 13, when he said that “shouting” would not resolve the issue, Mr. Sanders slyly calibrated his language.
“The problem is people all over this country — not you, Secretary Clinton — are shouting at each other,” he said about guns. “And what we need to do is bring people together to work on the agreement where there is broad consensus.”
Mr. Sanders arrived in Des Moines under pressure from some of his backers to deliver crisper lines of attack against Mrs. Clinton. The most recent New York Times-CBS survey showed that 52 percent of likely Democratic voters are backing Mrs. Clinton, compared with 33 percent for Mr. Sanders, and she has extended her lead in polls in Iowa and closed in on Mr. Sanders in New Hampshire, the first states to vote in the Democratic contest.
But even as he sought to portray Mrs. Clinton as wavering and untrustworthy on liberal issues, she looked beyond the primary and sought to improve her standing among general election voters. An ABC News-Washington Post poll released this month showed 51 percent of voters have an unfavorable opinion of Mrs. Clinton, while a CBS News poll released in October showed 61 percent of registered voters did not trust Mrs. Clinton.
In calling out Mr. Sanders for what she said are impractical proposals, Mrs. Clinton reiterated the sentiment, if not the exact phrasing, of a refrain that resonated in the first debate: “I’m a progressive who likes to get things done,” she said then.
Mrs. Clinton mocked his proposal to offer free college tuition for all, saying: “I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college,” and suggested that his health care plan would hand over too much power to states.
Mr. O’Malley sought to portray Mrs. Clinton as a flip-flopper on gun control. “Secretary Clinton, you’ve been on three sides of this,” he said. “When you ran in 2000, you said that we needed federal robust regulations. Then, in 2008, you were portraying yourself as Annie Oakley and saying that we don’t need those regulations on the federal level. And now you come back around here.”
Mrs. Clinton tried to brush off attacks. “You’ve heard a lot about me in this debate,” she said in closing, “and I’m going to keep talking and thinking about all of you.”
But there were some topics that Mr. Sanders and Mr. O’Malley would not broach. In the first debate, Mr. Sanders said the American people were “sick and tired of hearing about” Mrs. Clinton’s “damn emails,” a sentiment he reiterated on Saturday.
While his criticism of Mrs. Clinton for her ties to banks was stinging, Mr. Sanders demurred again from attacking her over her use of a private email server as secretary of state, despite recent comments he made implying he considered the issue a valid one.
“We’ve gotten off Hillary’s emails. Good. Let’s go to the major issues facing America,” said Mr. Sanders.
Mrs. Clinton, in response, said: “I agree completely,” drawing laughs from the crowd. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
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