Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley celebrated their performances at the debate at a barbecue in central Iowa on Sunday afternoon, each gloating that the Democrats looked better than the Republicans on a national stage.
But with the smell of smoked pork wafting over a dusty agriculture learning center in Ames, it was the underdog O’Malley who turned his attention to attacking Clinton, ensuring the fireworks continued after the Saturday night debate.
“There are profound differences in this race,” the former Maryland Governor told a crowd of several hundred Iowa Democrats gathered in chairs on a dirt floor. He knocked Clinton on gun control, her acceptance of Wall Street contributions and immigration, saying the former Secretary of State is inconsistent on progressive values.
Meanwhile, Clinton in her speech extended a conciliatory hand to O’Malley and emphasized all the values she shares with the two other Democratic candidates despite a scrappy debate. “There may be differences among the three of us on that stage last night,” Clinton told the audience, her husband president Bill Clinton sitting gamely nearby and smiling and clapping. “Our differences pale compared to what we believe, what we stand for.”
It was a tale of two candidates, each with vastly different trajectories at a crucial juncture in the Democratic primary.
With 78 days to go before the Iowa caucuses, Clinton, the overwhelming frontrunner and presumptive nominee with over 50% in Iowa poll averages, is looking forward to a general election and taking on the Republicans. O’Malley, the struggling underdog, is desperate to drum up some momentum and take a chunk out of his opponent’s support in Iowa, where he has staked his fate. And after months of lingering in the low single digits in the polls, O’Malley has little choice other than to target Clinton.
“In every campaign, there comes a time when the candidates have to present their case, compare and contrast with the other candidates in this race,” O’Malley told a scrum of reporters after the event. “There are profound differences between the three candidates and the experience we have to offer.”
On gun control, O’Malley attacked Clinton for shifting her rhetoric over the years. “Secretary Clinton has been on three sides of this issue. For it in 2000, against it in 2008 when she used to hit president Obama with it and said you shouldn’t have national standards, and now back,” O’Malley said. He criticized her on immigration, saying that she did not “pass comprehensive immigration reform” in 2007, when she had a chance as senator from New York. “Now we have to pick up the pieces and move forward,” O’Malley said.
O’Malley also hit Clinton on perhaps her worst moment in the debate last night, when she appeared to connect the 9/11 attacks to her support on Wall Street. “Last night in the debate, Secretary Clinton, to try to mask her proximity to Wall Street and the huge amount of contributions she has received personally from the major banks of Wall Street, sadly invoked 9/11,” O’Malley said. “She doesn’t have to mask it. It is what it is. That is the sort of economy, that is the sort of economic advice she would follow.”
O’Malley said he would be the more trustworthy progressive. “I have been consistent,” O’Malley told the audience. “I am clear about my principles and that is what has allowed me to be an effective leader.”
After a tough debate when her opponents Sanders and O’Malley pummeled her on a range of issues, Clinton focused her fire on Republicans. “You listen to the Republicans—they want to rip up our progress that we’ve made,” she said. “And just shred it, throw away, and deny we have to do more to build our economy and our country!”
Clinton then repeated much of her stump speech, eliciting loud applause from the audience and sounding like a candidate prepared for a general election. “I listen to the Republicans, and I know they want to turn the clock back on human rights, on civil rights, on women’s rights on gay rights, on voting rights, and we can’t let that happen!” Clinton said. “We have to stand firmly against them!”
O’Malley and Clinton both spoke in a large Iowa State University building often used for cattle judging and horse shows. Cornucopias and sheaves of wheat adorned the tables and the audience munched on sandwiches and brownies.
All the Democratic candidates have built out large staffs in Iowa. O’Malley now has dozens of organizers to try to take on Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has largely eclipsed the former Maryland Governor in the fight for the progressive Democratic base. Though O’Malley has around 5% support in the Iowa polls, he has gained since Vice President Joe Biden announced he would not enter the race. O’Malley and his aides are feeling flush after Saturday’s debate, where he directed much of his fire at Clinton and was a louder voice on stage than in the first debate in Las Vegas last month.
“He showed command and control on ISIS command control on foreign policy, and quite frankly the other candidates didn’t do that well,” boasted O’Malley advisor Bill Hyers on Saturday night. “In the first debate we introduced ourselves. In the second debate we debated a little.”
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Clinton meanwhile has the favor of the Democratic party establishment and has regained much of the fervor she lost over the summer, with voters enthusiastic about her debate performance and her 11-hour marathon testimony in the Benghazi hearings last month.
She has rode that momentum in recent weeks, attacking Republicans emphasizing positions likely to win over swing voters. “I am for a woman’s right to choose and I will defend Planned Parenthood,” Clinton said on Sunday. “I intend to take on and stand against the gun lobby in order to work for gun safety measures and end this scourge of gun violence.”
Much of the audience in Ames supported Clinton, and even those that didn’t were worried that O’Malley’s criticism of her might if she wins the nomination. Afterwards, Jan Beran, a supporter in the audience who supports O’Malley, expressed some doubt about her candidate’s attacks against Clinton. “I’m not sure it’s positive. I think it opens the conversations for Republicans to do the same, which they will probably do anyway,” Beran said.
For all the focus on Clinton, O’Malley’s biggest challenge may be winning over the progressive voters in Iowa who support Sanders.
David Karayof, a young man who wants to see a Sanders-O’Malley ticket, said he would like O’Malley only as vice president. He approached O’Malley after the event and apologized for supporting Sanders, but said he is an admirer of the Maryland governor. “Thanks, man,” O’Malley said.
Then Karayoff told him he preferred him on some issues to the Vermont Senator.
“No shit,” O’Malley said playfully. “So tell Bernie to do a better job.”
That evening, Sanders addressed a crowd of students in a packed hall at Simpson College in Indianola and briefly asked the Democratic candidates to support paid family leave legislation pending in Congress. But Sanders barely addressed his rivals for the nomination, appealing instead to his audience to “give Washington an offer that they cant refuse.”
“Unless Congress starts responding to needs working families and working class, those people in Washington are going to have to go out and get a new job,” Sanders said.
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