Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders Come Out Swinging in First Democratic Debate

Former secretary of state fires back at Republican critics of her use of private email server: “Surprise… I’m still standing”

Last Updated: October 14, 2015 @ 2:18 PM

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have barely mentioned each other on the campaign trail. But that all changed as the two squared off for the first time at the CNN debate at the Wynn Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, Tuesday night.

The two headliners dominated the Democratic debate coming out swinging as they shared the stage with a trio of also-rans: former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, Former Virginia senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee. Vice President Joe Biden, who is still deciding whether to enter the race, was also invited but opted to sit it out.

It took a good hour to get to the most contentious issue in this year’s presidential race: Clinton’s use of a private email server during her years as secretary of state.

Clinton defended herself by saying the issue was drummed up by Republicans looking to take her down. “Surprise,” Clinton said sarcastically. “I’m still standing.”

But it was Sanders who scored the biggest points when he came to Clinton’s defense.

“Let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think that the secretary is right,” Sanders said to thunderous applause. “And that is that the American public is sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” adding, “Enough of the emails!”

Clinton shook Sanders’ hand and thanked him.

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 13: Democratic presidential candidates U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) and Hillary Clinton take part in a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Facebook at Wynn Las Vegas on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Five Democratic presidential candidates are participating in the party's first presidential debate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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Tuesday’s debate was moderated by Anderson Cooper, who was joined by CNN’s chief political correspondent Dana Bash and CNN en Español anchor Juan Carlos Lopez who asked additional questions. Don Lemon posed questions submitted via social media.

Asked about her shifting positions on various issues, including same-sex marriage and more recently the Pacific Trade Partnership agreement, the Democratic frontrunner strongly denied that she changed her views to match the mood of voters.

“Like most human beings, I do absorb new information, I do look at what’s happening in the world,” Clinton said. Asked specifically on why she changed her mind about the Pacific Rim trade deal she called a “gold standard” while serving as secretary of state, Clinton said it simply did not meet her standards.

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 13: (L-R) Democratic presidential candidates Jim Webb, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee take part in presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Facebook at Wynn Las Vegas on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The five candidates are participating in the party's first presidential debate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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For her part, the former secretary of state attacked Sanders on his votes against major gun control legislation, saying he had not been tough enough on the NRA.

Sanders defended himself by saying the bigger issue is providing better mental health services and stricter background checks.

Donald Trump surprisingly didn’t come up all that much. His name was only mentioned in passing as a quip from Clinton during a discussion about whether college tuition should be free for everybody… including the billionaire Manhattan developer’s kids.

While Trump wasn’t present, he made his presence felt by live-blogging the event on Twitter.

“There is not a STAR on stage tonight!,” Trump tweeted at one point during the debate.

CNN may have been right to worry the Democratic debate wouldn’t be as explosive as the first two GOP debates, which drew more than 23 million viewers for CNN and 24 million for Fox News.