Hillary Clinton Ignores Democratic Rivals' Criticism at South Carolina Forum

The Democratic front-runner defends her gay-rights record and says she won't be influenced by her Wall Street backers.

Clinton on Dem Debate Attacks: Let’s Wait and Find Out

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton defended her claim that she and her husband backed the Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s as a tactic to forestall a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage at a Friday forum where the resurgent front-runner largely ignored her rivals' sniping in favor of outlining her own political vision.

Clinton's rationale for supporting DOMA, which limited the federal definition of marriage to a union between a male and female, has come under considerable skepticism since she first raised it, insisted that her concerns were genuine. A constitutional amendment “was something that came up in private discussions that I had,” Clinton told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow on Friday during a one-on-one interview that was part of the network's First in the South forum for Democratic presidential candidates, held at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

In back-to-back half-hour interviews, the three candidates all praised President Barack Obama, mused about how their party might improve its electoral showing in the south, and pressed a populist view of the economy and reservations about the use of military force. A series of deliberately light-hearted questions produced a few personal insights: Senator Bernie Sanders said his dream job is to be president of CNN; Clinton said she had a permanent before her wedding to transform her straight hair into curls; and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley revealed that he owns a kilt. Asked the biggest misconception of him, Sanders said, “People think I am grumpy.”

In her comments on DOMA, Clinton was trying to clear up a controversy that began last month, when the former first lady told Maddow in an interview that she and her husband had backed DOMA because they believed that it would be a way to prevent congressional Republicans from pushing for a change to the Constitution. But subsequent reporting by BuzzFeed and others has shown that there wasn't any public discussion of that possibility by the Clinton White House in the mid-1990s. “If I'm wrong about the public debate, I obviously take responsibility for that,” the candidate said. What matters more, she added, is where she stands now on marriage and other gay-rights issues.

Clinton's comments in that MSNBC interview last month contributed to Sanders's sharper tone toward her. The next night, at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, he didn't directly attack the Clintons but did weigh in on his rival's shifting positions: “Today, some are trying to rewrite history by saying they voted for one anti-gay law to stop something worse. That’s not the case.”

Keystone a 'No-Brainer'

Though Sanders made a point of reiterating his position that he would not engage in personal attacks on Clinton in his interview with Maddow, he did continue suggesting that she has shifted her political positions opportunistically. “For me—as opposed to some other unnamed candidates—the issue of Keystone was kind of a no-brainer,” Sanders said, taking a not particularly veiled jab at Clinton hours after Obama announced his administration will oppose construction of  Keystone XL, a controversial proposed trans-continental oil pipeline. The former secretary of state did not take a stand against Keystone until September

Sanders also complained that Clinton “has kind of misstated my view” on guns, referring to her frequent references to a line he used during the first Democratic debate, imploring her Americans to “stop shouting” about the issue, which she has suggested is a sexist gibe. “The question is not shouting at each other, the question is bringing people together,” he said. Sanders defended his vote in favor of allowing guns on Amtrak trains by saying it’s an extension of the rules on airplanes and challenging Maddow’s claim that he voted against the Brady Bill five times, since those votes were all related. 

He also questioned Clinton's sincerity on call for campaign finance reform. “I do not believe you can just talk the talk,” he said. “You've got to walk the walk.” Sanders noted that he is the only one of the Democratic candidates not being supported by a sanctioned super-PAC. Clinton is backed by two. 

O’Malley Files for NH Ballot, Says Race Has Just Begun

The third candidate at the Democratic forum, O’Malley, who spoke first, jabbed both Clinton and Sanders. He too portrayed Clinton as a johnny-come-lately on Keystone. “I was against it a year ago,” he said. And, for the first time on a national stage, he raised Sanders's criticism of Obama before the president's 2012 re-election bid, when the Vermont senator said that “it would be a good idea if President Obama faced some primary opposition” to move him to the left.

“When President Obama was running for re-election, I was glad to step up and work very hard for him, while Senator Sanders was trying to find someone to primary him,” O'Malley said.

'Our Party's Rather Divided Past'

Then, in a swing not only at Sanders but also at Clinton, who identified as a Republican when she got to college, he added: “I'm a Democrat. I'm not a former independent. I'm not a former Republican.”

O'Malley was the only one of the three candidates to visit the spin room after the forum and he continued his attacks on his two rivals, both of whom are besting him by significant percentages in the polls, as he answered reporters' questions. “I don't think the answer to this problem is socialism. I don’t think the answer to this problem is to declare that all Republicans are our enemies,” he said. The first reference was to Sanders, the second to Clinton, who said at the Democrats' first debate—she says joking—that she views members of the other party as her enemies.

Voters saw a “pretty clear choice between the three alternatives they have,” O'Malley added. “Two of them [are] from our party’s rather divided past. And one of us—namely me—who can actually bring people together to get things done.”

Clinton, who has surged recently in the polls, was the last to speak. She mentioned neither of her opponents, directly or indirectly. 

She continued with the populist rhetoric that has been a hallmark of her campaign. “I do think people rightly believe that corporations and the powerful have stacked the deck,” she said. And she pushed back against the notion that she's a captive of the Wall Street donors who have provided financial backing for her campaigns since she was a New York senator. “There's a lot to New York City beyond Wall Street,” Clinton said, adding: “Anybody who thinks that they can influence what I will do doesn't know me very well.”

But Clinton also offered a hint that she' beginning to think about the base-broadening she'll need to do as a general election candidate. She said she wants to be the “president for the struggling, the striving and the successful.” Acknowledging that “the Republican Party dominates the south,” she said “we need to understand...why other people don't trust the Democratic Party.”

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