Hillary Rodham Clinton, seeking to stem the momentum of her insurgent challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, aggressively questioned his values, positions and voting history in the first Democratic debate on Tuesday night, turning a showdown that was expected to emphasize her character into a forceful referendum on his record.
In a series of sometimes biting exchanges, Clinton declared that Sanders was misguided in his handling of crucial votes on gun control and even in his grasp of how essential capitalism is to the American identity. Mocking Sanders' admiration for the health care system of Denmark, she interrupted a moderator to offer a stinging assessment of his logic, suggesting he was unprepared to grapple with the realities of governing a capitalist superpower.
"I love Denmark," Clinton said, with a wry smile. "We are not Denmark," she added. "We are the United States of America."
The crowd erupted in applause.
A few moments later, Clinton took aim at what may be Sanders' greatest vulnerability with the Democratic left, asking why he had voted to shield gun makers and dealers from liability lawsuits. Sanders, who linked his record on gun control to his representation of a rural state, called the bill "large and complicated."
"I was in the Senate at the same time," Clinton replied. "It wasn't that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward."
Asked if Sanders was tough enough on guns during his nearly decade-long career in the Senate, Clinton offered a sharp reply: "No, not at all."
"I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence," she said. "This has gone on too long, and it's time the entire country stood up against the NRA," referring to the National Rifle Association.
It was a dominant performance in the first part of the debate that showcased Clinton's political arsenal: a long record of appearances in presidential-level debates, intense and diligent preparation, and a nimbleness and humor largely lacking in her male counterparts. She let no opportunity pass her by. When Sanders described the conflict in Syria as "a quagmire within a quagmire," but said that he did not support sending American ground troops there, Clinton interjected energetically: "Nobody does. Nobody does, Senator Sanders."
For Sanders, it was an evening of unexpectedly forceful challenges, both from Clinton and the moderator. He seemed somewhat exasperated and at a loss for how to match Clinton's agility. One of his most memorable moments appeared to be when he sought to shield Clinton from criticism of her email practices.
"The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails," he said.
Clinton flashed a wide smile and shook her rival's hand. "Thank you, Bernie," she said, setting off huge applause in the auditorium.
Her male rivals, sensing vulnerability at the start of the debate but appearing wary of directly attacking her, instead offered oblique criticisms and diplomatic dismissals. In his opening statement, Lincoln Chafee, the former senator and governor of Rhode Island, told the audience: "I am proud to say, in my 30 years of public service, I have had no scandal. I have ethical standards."
Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, appeared to take a swipe at Clinton's reputation for adjusting her policy positions to match the political mood when he described himself as "very clear about my principles."
It was, for Clinton, a highly anticipated return to the debate stage after a seven-year hiatus and a season of remarkable political convulsions: the revelation that she relied exclusively on a private email server as secretary of state; the emergence of Sanders, a once-obscure senator from Vermont, as a potent rival in Iowa and New Hampshire; the threat of Vice President Joe Biden's entering the race; and the restless liberal tide within the Democratic electorate that she is struggling to command.
Clinton seemed highly attuned to what may be her biggest vulnerabilities in 2016: her authenticity and questions about whether she cares about the problems of ordinary people. In a CBS News poll released Sunday, 61 percent of registered voters said they did not trust her, and 48 percent said she did not care about people like them.
In a bid to reverse those troubling figures, Clinton has thrown herself onto pop-culture stages and displayed a warmer, less guarded side of herself, even appearing as a sympathetic bartender on "Saturday Night Live," which has caricatured her this season as a power-obsessed maniac determined to seize the White House. During the debate, she smiled and laughed regularly.
The Wynn hotel, the slender golden curve of Las Vegas excess that played host to the debate, advertised it as a prizefight, with a CNN promotion showing silhouettes of "Sanders" and "Clinton" flashing on a larger-than-life screen overlooking the city's famed strip. In a strange tableau for a political party preoccupied with income inequality, a mix of around 1,300 prominent officials and wealthy donors filed into a ballroom down the hall from rows of luxury fashion stores and poker tables. (Before the debate started, one Clinton donor bragged of winning $25,000 at blackjack.)
Clinton's forcefulness was striking, given that on the campaign trail, she has seemed unsure of how to neutralize Sanders' crowd-luring popularity. Her campaign has feared that attacking a candidate beloved by supporters for his quirky style, raw frustration and unvarnished liberalism could alienate precisely the segment of the Democratic electorate she would need to win the general election.
Sanders, who has expressed distaste for campaigning negatively, has settled on his own respectful tactic: portraying himself as a consistent progressive, ideologically immovable for decades, to draw a contrast with Clinton, whom he suggests has slowly contorted herself to match his views.
For the rest of the candidates on stage Tuesday, the debate was a struggle for relevance, eyeballs and a breakthrough moment — not to mention the campaign donations that might flow from the intermingling of all three.
The war for Democratic dollars is strikingly unbalanced. Clinton has raised by far the most, with $75 million for her campaign, and Priorities USA Action, the main "super PAC" supporting her candidacy, said it had secured $26 million in commitments since July. Sanders has collected $40 million, much of it from small donations, without the aid of a super PAC. Their rivals have drawn relatively paltry sums. (Chafee is modestly funding his own candidacy.)
Allies of O'Malley, who has struggled to compete with Clinton's organizational prowess and Sanders' compelling message, believed he had to take on Clinton in the debate, as he has in speeches and interviews. They urged him to use his record — he and Maryland's legislature legalized same-sex marriage there before Clinton had backed it — as a cudgel to emphasize her reputation for adapting slowly to the party's liberal consensus. But O'Malley's team was worried that he could appear hotheaded, and was ever conscious that Clinton's greatest debate moments have come when male opponents appeared to bully her.
For Jim Webb and Chafee, who remain asterisks in the Democratic primary, the debate was a chance to introduce themselves as potentially credible alternatives. Each has taken a different approach so far.Webb, a former senator from Virginia, has brought a sometimes-dissonant conservative touch to this year's liberal-leaning primary. For example, he has questioned the president's authority to regulate carbon emissions, a cherished goal of environmentalists and something President Barack Obama has sought to do repeatedly.
Chafee, the unpredictable, antiwar former senator and governor of Rhode Island, has challenged Clinton over her 2002 vote in favor of military action in Iraq, pointing to his own vote against the measure as evidence of his prescience and political courage. ( Clinton now says she regrets her vote.) But his ruminations have at times proven distracting. He has called, for instance, for the United States to adopt the metric system.
The Democratic candidates will meet for their next debate on Nov. 14 at Drake University in Des Moines — in Iowa, the first state to vote in the presidential nomination process.