Sen. Bernie Sanders wanted to focus on the real issues at hand Tuesday night in the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas.
So the Vermont senator and the longest-serving independent in U.S. congressional history cut right to the chase with front-runner and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“The American people are sick and tired are hearing about your damn emails,” Sanders exclaimed as the audience cheered with approval.
Clinton — who most pundits might agree dominated the debate, if not winning the battle for attention — extended her hand to her rival.
“Me too, me too. Thank you, Bernie,” she said.
Sanders, Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee proved that opponents can debate without the rancor displayed in two previous Republican debates.
The candidates spoke often about fighting income inequality, the Middle East and gun control.
“The rich are getting richer, everybody else is getting poorer,” Sanders said.
“Why is it that so few have so much while so many have so few?”
His fellow candidates voiced similar concerns.
“You may be sure that in a Webb administration, the highest priority will be the working people who every day go out and make this country stronger at home, and who give us the right reputation and security overseas under a common-sense foreign policy,” Webb said.
O’Malley said he’s learned how to get things done, whether it was raising Maryland’s minimum wage, making the state’s public schools the best in the nation or passing marriage equality, the DREAM Act and comprehensive gun safety legislation.
“Because I am very clear about my principals,” he said.
Chafee, who noted that he’s the only candidate to serve as mayor, U.S. senator and governor, said he took his state’s governor’s office at the depths of the recession and turned Rhode Island around.
“We had the biggest drop of the unemployment rate over my four budgets of all but one state. It happens to be Nevada, where we’re having this debate,” Chafee said. “I’m very proud that over my almost 30 years of public service, I have had no scandals. I’ve always been honest. I have the courage to take the long-term view, and I’ve shown good judgment. I have high ethical standards.”
It was also clear that each candidate was mindful of the potential pitfalls of succeeding the first African-American president as each measured their answers to the question of whether black lives or all lives matter.
“Black lives matter,” Sanders said.
“The reason those words matter is the African-American community knows that on any given day some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail or their kids are going to get shot,” he said.
“We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom and we need major major reforms in a broken criminal justice system.”
O’Malley said, “Black lives matter and we have a lot of work to do to reform our criminal justice system.”
Clinton praised President Obama as a great moral leader on the issue who has laid out an agenda that has been obstructed by the Republicans at every turn. She also said the U.S. should follow up recommendations from a commission on policing created by the president, and urged people to tackle criminal justice reform.
She called for a “new New Deal” for communities of color and scolded Republicans about paid family leave.
She also said she’d support states that want to provide in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.
Sanders was also put on the defensive when asked why Latinos should still support his candidacy after he voted against a comprehensive immigration bill in 2007.
“I didn’t leave anybody at the alter, I voted against that piece of legislation because it had [a] guest-worker provision in it which the Southern Policy Law Center talked about being semi-slavery,” he said. “Guest workers are coming in, they’re working under terrible conditions, but if they stand up for their rights, they’re thrown out of the country. I was not the only progressive to vote against that legislation for that reason.
“My view right now … is that when you have 11 million undocumented people in this country we need comprehensive immigration reform, we need a path toward citizenship, and we need to take people out of the shadows,” Sanders said.
Each of the candidates was asked about the greatest national security threat.
“Chaos in the Middle East,” Chafee said.
“Nuclear Iran remains the biggest threat, along with the threat of ISIS,’ O’Malley said.
“Continuing threat from the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear material that can fall into the wrong hands,” Clinton said.
“The scientific community is telling us if we do not address the threat of climate change…the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and grandkids may well not be habitable,” Sanders said
“Our greatest long-term strategic challenge is our relations with China. Our greatest day-to-day threat is cyber warfare against this country,” Webb said. “Our greatest military operational threat is resolving the situation in the Middle East.”
Another hot-button question was what would each candidate do that would differentiate themselves from the current president and avoid essentially creating a third Obama term.
“I have a lot of respect for President Obama,” Sanders said. “But here’s where I do disagree: I believe that the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of the drug companies, the power of corporate media is so great that the only way we really transform America … is through a political revolution when millions of people begin to come together and stand up and say our government is going to work for all of us.”
Chafee expressed his desire to end the nation’s current wars abroad, while O’Malley promised to protect taxpayers from “recklessness on Wall Street.”
Clinton elected to point out a more obvious distinction.
“I think being the first woman president would be quite a change from the presidents who had up until this point,” she said.
Webb said he would be less liberal in using executive authority, a tactic Obama has deployed several times after reaching stalemates with Republican lawmakers.
“I came up as a committee counsel in the Congress, used to put dozens of bills on the House floor,” Webb said. “I have a very strong feeling about how our federal system works.”
In the end, each of the candidates appeared pleased with their performance.
“I think what you did see, is that in this debate we tried to deal with some of the very tough issues facing our country,” Clinton said. “That’s in stark contrast to the Republicans who are currently running for president.”