Hillary Clinton hangs tough in New Hampshire debate

MSNBC Democratic debate fact check
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Story highlights

  • Raul Reyes: Clinton at top of her game in New Hampshire debate, ready for questions about speaking fees, Wall Street ties and progressive bona fides
  • He says Sanders stuck to his money in politics issues, unable to dent Clinton. She stumbled, though, on releasing transcripts of her paid speeches

Raul A. Reyes, an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors, writes frequently for CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)If the press reports are to be believed, Hillary Clinton initially pressured the Democratic National Committee to limit the number of debates this primary season. Why she would have ever thought that was a sound idea is mystifying, because Clinton excels in this format.

In an evening that was a true debate, with the candidates engaging one another as well as the moderators in Durham, New Hampshire, she was at the top of her game.
Although Bernie Sanders has a compelling populist message, Clinton's decades in the public eye served her well this evening. Like an A-plus student who prepared for an exam, she seemed composed and ready for questions about her Goldman Sachs speeches, her establishment ties and whether she was an authentic progressive.
    Notably, to the whole discussion of who was the "real" progressive, she managed to throw out mentions of Sanders' past votes against gun reform and immigration reform -- before suggesting that everyone move on. A bit passive aggressive, but well played.
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    Sanders' strengths lie in his calls for campaign finance reform and reining in Wall Street. Yet while more than half of the debate centered on these issues, he was unable to best Clinton on these topics. Where he should have triumphed, he could only manage a draw -- which translates to a win for Clinton.
    In fact, Clinton had the moment of the evening when she called out Sanders for his campaign's "artful smear" of insinuating that her acceptance of corporate donations implied unethical behavior. It speaks volumes about her confidence that she was even willing to lean into an issue where she is vulnerable to criticism.
    However, Clinton did have one unnecessary stumble. Asked whether she would release transcripts of her paid speeches, she replied, "I will look into it." These were public addresses, not only to Goldman Sachs, but to groups including the American Camp Association and the United Fresh Produce Association.
    She should have simply answered "yes." Instead, she gave ammunition to those who view her as secretive and less than transparent.
    As in past debates, Sanders was weak when the discussion touched upon foreign affairs. At this point in his candidacy, it is astonishing that he does not seem to have developed a clear outline of what foreign policy would look like under a Sanders presidency.
    At least three times, he returned to the fact that he voted against the war in Iraq. While that is indeed proof of good judgment, it was also over a decade ago. As Clinton retorted, "A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS."
    In contrast, when Clinton was discussing Middle East policy, she was detailed and comprehensive. She name-checked Afghan leaders. She reminded viewers that she was "in the room" as the killing of Osama bin Laden was carried out in Abbottabad. "This (foreign policy) is a big part of the job interview," she stated. True.
    Both candidates deserve kudos for an extremely substantive debate. That said, unfortunately there was no discussion of Planned Parenthood, women's reproductive rights, voting rights or raising the minimum wage. Immigration reform was mentioned only in passing, with both candidates coming out in favor of it (no surprise there).
    To his credit, Sanders offered one critical takeaway from the evening. Referring to his rivalry with Clinton he stated, "On our worst days, we are a hundred times better than any of the Republican candidates." Tonight's debate was proof of that.