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5 Presidential Candidates Hit Campaign Theme During First Debate


A Democratic presidential debate happened in Vegas last night, and the race may have stayed pretty much the way it was. Five candidates took the stage and sparred for two hours. The candidates were, themselves, hitting many of the themes they discuss out on the campaign trail. Here's NPR's Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: From the opening statement, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was classic Bernie Sanders. While other candidates talked about their families and their resumes, the getting to know you stuff, Sanders skipped straight ahead to the issue that has animated him for his entire political career.


BERNIE SANDERS: The middle class of this country for the last 40 years has been disappearing. Millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages. And yet, almost all of the new income and wealth being created is going to the top 1 percent.

KEITH: It was a theme he would come back to throughout the debate. For former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this is what she wanted everyone to know.


HILLARY CLINTON: I'm a progressive. But I'm a progressive who likes to get things done.


CLINTON: And I know how to find common ground. And I know how to stand my ground. And I have proved that in every position that I've had, even dealing with Republicans who never had a good word to say about me, honestly.

KEITH: Debate moderator Anderson Cooper started by quizzing the candidates on their weaknesses. The question for Clinton was her leftward shift on same-sex marriage, immigration and most recently, trade. Cooper then asked Sanders whether someone who describes himself as a Democratic socialist can get elected.


ANDERSON COOPER: You don't consider yourself a capitalist, though?

SANDERS: Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little, by which Wall Street's greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don't. I believe in a society where all people do well, not just the handful of billionaires.

KEITH: When the conversation turned to guns, the debate turned into a real debate. This is an area where there are genuine differences in the Democratic field. In 2005, Sanders voted in favor of a law that gives gun manufacturers and sellers protection from lawsuits. He said last night, Congress should take another look at it.


COOPER: Do you want to shield gun companies from lawsuits...

SANDERS: Of course not. This was a large and complicated bill. There were provisions in it that I think made sense. For example, do I think that a gun shop in the state of Vermont that sells legally a gun to somebody, and that somebody goes out and does something crazy, that that gun shop owner should be held responsible? I don't.

KEITH: This is a rare issue where Sanders doesn't hold the position to the left of the Democratic field. Clinton was ready to pounce.


CLINTON: Sen. Sanders did vote five times against the Brady bill. Since it was passed, more than 2 million prohibited purchases have been prevented. He also did vote, as he said, for this immunity provision. I voted against it. I was in the Senate at the same time. It wasn't that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me.

KEITH: Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who passed gun control measures in his state, went after Sanders. O'Malley told the story of a couple in the debate audience whose daughter was killed in the Aurora movie theater shooting. They tried suing the gun dealer.


MARTIN O'MALLEY: You want to talk about a rigged game, Senator? The game was rigged. A man had sold 4,000 rounds of military ammunition to this person that killed their daughter, riddled her body with five bullets. And he didn't even ask where it was going. And not only did their case get thrown out of court, they were slapped with $200,000 in court fees because of the way that the NRA gets its way in our Congress, and we take a backseat.

KEITH: Twice in response to Clinton and O'Malley, Sanders said shouting wouldn't help.


SANDERS: We can raise our voices, but I come from a rural state. And the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states, whether we like it or not. Our job is to bring people together around strong, common sense gun legislation.

KEITH: As expected, moderator Anderson Cooper turned the discussion to the private email server Clinton used for official business while she was secretary of state. As she has before, Clinton called the server arrangement, a mistake and not a greater choice. But she was quick to slam the House Benghazi investigation as partisan. When Cooper turned to Sanders, the senator who has pledged to run a positive campaign didn't take the bait.


SANDERS: Let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right. And that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.


CLINTON: Thank you. Me, too, me, too (laughter).

KEITH: Enough of the emails, Sanders said, let's talk about the real issues facing America. And so the debate went. Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb took a conservative path, appealing to what he described as the traditional Democratic Party. While the five candidates sometimes disagreed, they did not attack each other. At one point, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee set up a contrast with Clinton by pitching himself as scandal-free. Clinton, asked if she wanted to respond, simply smiled and said no. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Las Vegas.

GREENE: And the audio you heard there from the CNN debate came from Westwood One News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.