Hillary Clinton claimed during Saturday’s Democratic debate that the U.S. is “where we need to be” in the fight against the Islamic State, a comment that drew ridicule from Republicans and seemed to take some of the steam out of an earlier slam against Donald Trump.
The Democratic presidential front-runner addressed the anti-ISIS strategy after taking heat from primary rivals Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley for backing “regime change” in places like Libya and Syria. She countered that these are “complex problems” and said:
“We now finally are where we need to be. We have a strategy and a commitment to go after ISIS which is a danger to us as well as the region, and we finally have a U.N. Security Council resolution bringing the world together to go after a political transition in Syria.”
Republicans seized on the comments, with the Republican National Committee circulating a clip of the moment and Jeb Bush tweeting: “No @HillaryClinton – We are not ‘where we need to be’ in fight against ISIS.”
Clinton's campaign stood by the comments after
the debate ended, arguing that the U.N. resolution is a positive step.
But the claim is at odds with public skepticism about the current strategy for confronting ISIS, and marked an uneven moment for the candidate during an otherwise aggressive performance that saw her take on the Republican front-runner. Making an extraordinary claim early in the debate, Clinton alleged that ISIS is circulating videos of Trump’s comments about Islam to recruit more radical jihadists.
“He is becoming ISIS’ best recruiter,” Clinton said.
The Democratic front-runner did not offer evidence on the debate stage to back up her claim, but it was just one of several attacks from the former secretary of state against the Republican front-runner. While the three Democratic candidates sparred often over gun control and taxes and national security at the debate in New Hampshire, Clinton clearly endeavored to make the billionaire businessman her top target.
With the debate coming after Trump stirred controversy with his proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country in the wake of the San Bernardino terror attack, Clinton argued his remarks about Muslims are fanning the flames abroad for radical Islam.
“Mr. Trump has a great capacity to use bluster and bigotry to inflame people,” Clinton said. Of ISIS, she said, “They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”
Vermont Sen. Sanders and former Maryland Gov. O’Malley also took shots at Trump, with the latter urging the country to ignore the “fascist pleas of billionaires with big mouths.”
Trump, who normally responds to his critics with lightning-fast speed on Twitter, has not yet fired back at Clinton over her ISIS claim. FoxNews.com has reached out to the campaign for comment.
The debate, hosted by ABC News, is the third of the Democratic primary season. It comes at a time when Clinton seems to be cementing her lead over the slim field – though not in the debate host state of New Hampshire, where Sanders leads in some polls.
With Sanders – and O’Malley – trying once again to challenge Clinton’s dominance in the race, her two rivals criticized her foreign policy approach. Sanders blasted her vote in the Senate for the Iraq war, and accused her of being too fond overall of pursuing “regime change” abroad.
O’Malley was even tougher on that front, accusing Clinton of being “gleeful” when Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was toppled and saying that in Syria, “We shouldn’t be the ones declaring that Assad must go.”
O’Malley also took a seeming shot at his rivals’ age when he prefaced his criticism by saying, “Can I offer a different generation’s perspective on this?”
The Democratic candidates also battled over gun control. O’Malley prompted the dispute by elbowing his way in and accusing his higher-polling rivals of being soft, or disingenuous, on the issue.
He blasted Sanders for voting against the landmark “Brady bill” and other measures, and added, “Secretary Clinton changes her position on this every election season, it seems.”
After complaining about “flip-flopping,” both Sanders and Clinton interrupted him.
“Let’s calm down a little bit, Martin,” Sanders said. “Let’s tell the truth,” Clinton added.
Sanders argued that he showed “courage” by standing up to gun interests in his state of Vermont, by voting to ban assault weapons and other actions. Clinton said she applauds O’Malley’s pro-gun control record but, “I just wish he wouldn’t misrepresent mine.”
She continued to suggest Sanders has not embraced gun control as much as he could. Earlier, Clinton also suggested guns are not the answer to the mounting terror threat.
“Arming more people to do what, I think, is not the appropriate response to terrorism,” Clinton said.
She and Sanders also tussled over a range of other domestic policies, including the potential cost of Sanders’ many entitlement program proposals – which Clinton argued would lead to taxes on the middle class. She pledged there would be no such tax hikes on her watch.
And Clinton again confronted questions about her ties to corporate America and Wall Street. Asked if corporate America should love her, she quipped, “Everybody should.”
She then added, “I want to be the president for the struggling, the striving and the successful.”
Sanders put some space between them on that issue.
“They ain’t gonna like me,” he said.
O’Malley also brought up a controversial moment from the last debate, when Clinton invoked 9/11 to explain her ties to Wall Street. O’Malley said she “very shamefully” tried to downplay her relationship with the financial sector by doing so.
An issue that surprisingly did not spark major fireworks at the debate was the developing controversy over Sanders’ staff improperly accessing Clinton voter files on a Democratic National Committee database.
At the very beginning of the debate, Sanders publicly apologized to Clinton for the episode -- even as he continued to blast the DNC for what he described as its heavy-handed punishment imposed against his campaign.
“I apologize,” Sanders said. He added, “I want to apologize to my supporters. This is not the type of campaign that we run.”
With the apology, Sanders seemed to de-escalate the tensions between the two candidates over the issue. At the same time, he continued to blast the DNC for initially locking down his camp’s access to all voter data.
“That is an egregious act,” he said. He also needled Clinton’s campaign for sending out “many press releases” criticizing him for the breach.
Clinton, in response, said all should “move on” from the dispute.
The DNC had already restored Sanders’ access to the voter files late Friday after a round of legal threats and accusations. But the episode stirred up long-simmering complaints from Clinton’s rivals that some in DNC leadership are trying to boost her campaign.
The debate Saturday fell at a time when the Democratic race has been overshadowed by the intense sparring on the Republican side and the shifting dynamics in that race. By contrast, Clinton has mostly held a steady lead on the Democratic side. She leads nationally by a wide margin and has restored a consistent lead in most Iowa polls, after a period this fall where Sanders had closed the gap.
In the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire, however, the Vermont senator continues to trade the lead with the Democratic front-runner.
The campaign itself has shifted in part to focus more on security issues in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks, a development seen by some analysts to put the economy-focused Sanders at a disadvantage. Sanders also has eased off criticism of Clinton’s personal email scandal, though it remains a major line of attack on the Republican side.