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Clinton, Rivals True To Form In Third Debate — As Are Their Critics

Bernie Sanders speaks with Hillary Clinton during a break at the third Democratic presidential debate Saturday night at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.
Jim Cole
Bernie Sanders speaks with Hillary Clinton during a break at the third Democratic presidential debate Saturday night at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

Not many minutes had passed in Saturday night's Democratic presidential debate before the issue that was expected to supply some drama had been raised, addressed and dismissed.

Sen. Bernie Sanders apologized for his staffer who downloaded data that belonged to the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Sanders apologized to his supporters and to Clinton, who accepted his apology. Third-wheel candidate Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, said it wasn't an issue that engaged the average American voter. And everyone agreed to move on.

So much for the controversy that had provided great material for journalists and political junkies for 36 hours prior to the debate. Sanders' campaign had staged a mini-rebellion over perceived favoritism on the part of the Democratic National Committee, which is part of a party establishment largely presumed to be in Clinton's camp.

On Friday, news had broken of a Sanders staffer being fired after accessing a proprietary precinct of the data base maintained by the Democratic National Committee. The DNC shut off the Sanders' campaign access to the database, including its own data, and some Clinton staff spoke of theft and the breaking of laws. Sanders' camp called all this overreaction and proof of the DNC's long-running favoritism toward Clinton.

Resentment over that perceived favoritism has motivated many in Sanders' ambit, but he was not willing to go to the mat over it on national TV. So when this crisis was demoted to kerfuffle, you could almost hear the remote controls of America clicking over to the NFL game or the NBC rerun of The Wiz. And you could score one more for those Democrats who would just as soon not be having these intraparty debates at all.

Those who stuck around pretty much had to score one more for Hillary Clinton, who cruised to another dominating performance as her party's national front-runner in this, the third and final debate of 2015, staged by the DNC and WMUR-TV at St. Anselm's College in Manchester, N.H.

And oh, yes, you should also chalk this up as one more instance of the news media getting the pregame analysis wrong. The data dust-up had been widely and eagerly touted as a reason to tune in Saturday. It was portrayed as a potential turning point in the campaign, potentially multiplying Sanders' supporters — or alienating them enough to keep them home in November if Sanders is not the nominee.

Instead, what ensued was a replay of the early moments of the first debate, when Sanders had not only declined to make an issue of Clinton's private emails controversy but suggested that anyone who did so was distracting the nation from its real problems.

Clinton had been more than glad to accept that earlier gift as well. Sanders has been saluted by many for his strict attention to substantive issues, but these demurrals may also have cost him his best chance to derail the Clinton Express.

Once again the prohibitive front-runner in two national polls released this week, Clinton was on her game again in Manchester on Saturday night, especially during the lengthy stretch of the debate devoted to foreign policy. With the moderators keeping the focus on national security, the former Secretary of State often seemed to be taking batting practice, making solid contact on virtually every pitch while her two rivals were reduced to supporting roles.

One place she may have stumbled was in her assessment of the current Obama administration policy against ISIS. While she has been a critic of that policy, urging more commitment and engagement in the Syrian crisis, for example, she said at one point that, "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 all as well as the region."

That prompted several Republican campaigns to respond via social media, mocking the suggestion that the U.S. is "where we need to be" with respect to fighting ISIS.

Clinton also made the claim that Donald Trump — a frequent target for all three Democratic candidates Saturday night — was "becoming ISIS' best recruiter":

"They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists. So I want to explain why this is not in America's interest to react with this kind of fear and respond to this sort of bigotry."

Fact checkers were at least at a loss to find evidence of this actually happening.

ABC News moderators David Muir and Martha Raddatz kept a strong rein on the debaters, including a particularly insistent Martin O'Malley, who tried to answer every question whether invited to or not.

But the pair were criticized after the debate for the omission of any questions about climate change or the treaty signed this month in Paris by nearly 200 nations intending to limit the use of fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.