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Democratic town hall: Clinton and Sanders attack over judgment and experience

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Welcome to Trail Guide, your host through the wilds of the 2016 presidential campaign. It's Monday, Jan. 25, and here's what we're talking about:

  • Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battle over judgment and experience, despite never sharing the stage during the Democratic town hall
  • Our takeaways: The unusual format did little to break new ground or stop the candidates' attacks
  • President Obama implies that Clinton is progressives' best hope, even as the White House scrambles to maintain an air of neutrality
  • Ted Cruz's time as Texas solicitor general offers a window into why he's both loved and loathed, the Times' Noah Bierman found
  • Campaigning for Clinton, Julian Castro tests the vice-presidential waters
  • Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio spend more on ads but have little to show for it

Democratic town hall takeaways: Little new ground broken with unusual format

 (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The three Democratic presidential candidates did not quite debate on Monday night. Instead, in one of the last chances for voters to see them before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, they took separate questions from the audience of Democrats who plan to caucus. What we noticed:

Candidates stick to their scripts

The format allowed the candidates to hold mostly to their stump speeches when answering questions, with their opponents off stage, no pushback from the questioners and only a few follow-ups from moderator Chris Cuomo. 

Bernie Sanders gets warm and fuzzy

Sure, there was plenty of talk about the 1% and the oligarchs. But the format, and perhaps the knowledge that he’s starting to become a serious candidate, pushed Sanders to get a little more personal than usual.

Clinton says it was 'tongue in cheek' to call Republicans her enemy

Hillary Clinton said Monday that it was only “tongue in cheek” when during an October debate she listed "the Republicans” among the enemies that she was most proud of making.

The former secretary of State, a prime target of Republican attacks for decades, said she would work hard to find common ground with GOP members of Congress if she is elected president.

“I’m going to be just giving them all bear hugs, whether they like it or not,” Clinton said at a CNN town hall with Democratic presidential candidates in Des Moines.

Clinton recalled that as a U.S. senator from New York, she worked with Republicans to pass laws on foster care, adoption and healthcare coverage for children. She vowed to do the same to advance her policy agenda as president.

At the fall debate, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper asked candidates which enemies they were most proud of making, saying that Franklin D. Roosevelt once suggested that he be judged by that standard.

“Well, in addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the Iranians – probably the Republicans,” Clinton responded.

Clinton argues her foreign policy experience is more 'than one vote' to support Iraq war

After being needled by Bernie Sanders over her 2002 vote in favor of war with Iraq, Hillary Clinton pointed to her work as secretary of State to argue that she has a far broader range of foreign policy experiences that show how she would lead if elected president.

“I have a much longer history than one vote,” Clinton said during a Democratic candidates’ town hall at Drake University here.

Among the examples Clinton cited was helping to create the coalition that imposed sanctions on Iran that eventually led to last year’s landmark nuclear deal.

“It’s imperative you do your very best … to avoid military action,” Clinton said in response to a question posed by an audience member. “It should be the last resort, not the first choice.”

She said the U.S. must pursue diplomacy, “even if it’s slow, boring, hard, to continue to persist and be patient to get results.”

Clinton noted that when she became the nation’s top diplomat, the Iranians were on a path to developing nuclear weapons. Many allies “just wanted to end that program by bombing them,” she said.

“We got the negotiation successfully done,” she said.

“So we have to be leading, that means we’ve got to be smart about how we try to assert our power so it is constructive, makes a difference and does lead to greater peace and prosperity,” Clinton said.

The three Democratic presidential candidates appeared individually onstage for about half an hour each. Sanders spoke first and hammered Clinton’s vote for war as a key difference in their records. Clinton has acknowledged that her vote was a mistake.

Hillary Clinton laces into Donald Trump on Islamophobia

Hillary Clinton angrily denounced Donald Trump's call for an open-ended ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S., calling it "not only shameful and contrary to our values" but dangerous.

It's dangerous, she said Monday, because Trump's harsh language has led to threats against Muslims living in the United States and because it undermines efforts to recruit foreign allies to help fight terrorism.

"We need a coalition that includes Muslim nations to defeat ISIS," Clinton said, raising her voice, "and it's pretty hard to figure out how you're going to make a coalition with the very nations you need if you spend your time insulting their religion."

Clinton, appearing at a Democratic town hall in Des Moines, was responding to a question from an Air Force veteran who wore a black burka and expressed concern about raising three children at a time of heightened animosity toward Muslims.

Clinton never mentioned Trump by name; instead she referred to "their" -- meaning the Republican Party's -- "front-runner."

But her contempt was clear from her angry tone and the disgusted look on her face.

"We cannot tolerate this," she said to applause from the partisan audience, "and we must stand up and say every person in this country deserves to be treated with respect and we must stand up against the bullying."

Periodic reminder: Hillary Clinton's email transparency is not a choice

Hillary Clinton said during Monday night's town hall that she has made an effort to be more transparent by releasing all of her emails from her time as secretary of State and casting her move as unprecedented. But Clinton's claim is misleading; she turned over her messages only after her use of a private email server was revealed. And several lawsuits filed by reporters would have eventually forced the release of the documents.

Hillary Clinton offers an inclusive message for Republicans

I want to be the president for everyone.

Hillary Clinton, in response to a question about what she would say to Republicans to win their votes

Bernie Sanders explains gun liability vote

There may be no issue that has bedeviled Bernie Sanders more than his 2005 Senate vote granting gun manufacturers exemption from liability lawsuits.

Hillary Clinton has repeatedly hammered Sanders over the vote, trying to squeeze to his political left by suggesting he is weak on gun control. She has seized on that vote as Exhibit A.

Sanders has said he would reconsider his support and offered an explanation at Monday night's Democratic town hall in Iowa.

The senator suggested he had small gun shop owners in his home state of Vermont in mind when he cast his vote.

"You go out, buy that gun legally and you go out and kill somebody. I think the gun shop owner should not be held liable for your act. That's what I believe," Sanders said.

By contrast, he went on, if a gun manufacturer knows that a community is being flooded with weapons falling into criminal hands, the manufacturer should be held liable.

"So I am willing now to look at that legislation, maintain what was good in it, get rid of what is bad in it," Sanders said.

Sanders tries to sharpen contrast with Clinton

Bernie Sanders faulted Hillary Clinton on Monday for voting to authorize the Iraq war, a major liability during her 2008 run for president, and he questioned her commitment to fighting climate change, noting the long delay before she took a stand against the Keystone oil pipeline.

His language was mild, but Sanders nonetheless tried to sharpen contrasts with Clinton, recalling his own House vote in 2002 against the Iraq invasion and his argument on why the war would be unwise.

“It gives me no pleasure to tell you that much of what I feared happened,” the Vermont senator told the audience here at a CNN Democratic presidential town hall.

As for the proposed oil pipeline between Canada and Texas, Sanders said, “On Day One, I said the Keystone pipeline is a dumb idea.” For months, Clinton declined to take a stand on the pipeline, which environmentalists vehemently oppose. She announced her opposition in September, weeks before President Obama announced that he was rejecting the pipeline. 

“Why did it take such a long time?” Sanders asked.

Sanders also defended a previous challenge to Clinton’s qualifications he made when he compared her experience to that of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

“Experience is important,” Sanders said. “But judgment is also important.”

Who is Martin O'Malley?

 (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

(Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, is far less known than Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and has not gained the kind of notice Bernie Sanders has. Check out The Times' rundown of all the presidential candidates to find out more about O'Malley.

Bernie Sanders defends the high cost of his healthcare proposal

Bernie Sanders defended his Medicare-for-all proposal during Monday's Democratic presidential forum, saying it would eliminate private health insurance premiums even if it requires higher taxes.

“We are the only country on Earth that allows private insurance companies to rip us off,” the Vermont senator said.

Sanders bemoaned “the outrageously high cost of prescription drugs,” saying the top three pharmaceutical companies made $45 billion in profits last year at a time when 1 in 5 Americans could not afford their medications.

“We will save middle-class people thousands of dollars a year on their healthcare bills,” he promised.

Sanders’ remarks at a CNN town hall in Des Moines came in response to a nurse who challenged his plan to expand Medicare when the program is already beset by problems.

Sanders raises the issue of Iraq war vote in Iowa Democratic forum

Less than seven minutes into a Democratic candidates’ forum on Monday, Sen. Bernie Sanders dinged rival Hillary Clinton, though not by name.

Asked whether he had the capacity to focus on the full range of issues that confront an American president, he recalled the case presented by then-President George W. Bush and then-Vice President Dick Cheney in the run-up to Congress’ 2002 vote on the Iraq war.

“I said, ‘No. I think that war is a dumb idea,’” Sanders said during the town hall at Drake University in Des Moines.

Left unsaid, but well-known among the Democratic voters who will head to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses in one week, is that Clinton voted to in favor of going to war. She has since then said the vote was a mistake, but the issue also dogged her during her unsuccessful 2008 presidential run.

Who is Bernie Sanders?

The Times' Mark Z. Barabak accompanied Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to Iowa months before he entered the presidential race and found that his passion for fighting for the working class runs deep.

Lighthearted moment to open the Democratic town hall

My wife told me to button my coat, but I’m too fat. 

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as he settled into his seat at the start of the Democratic town hall in Des Moines

You want me to go down there with a mop? 

Chris Christie, New Jersey governor and Republican presidential candidate, responding to a question about flooding from a recent storm.

Donald Trump threatens to boycott debate because of Fox's Megyn Kelly

With the next Republican presidential debate three days away, Donald Trump threatened Monday to boycott, saying moderator Megyn Kelly of Fox News was biased against him.

Trump insisted in an interview with CNN that Kelly “doesn’t treat me fairly.” In the first GOP presidential debate, Kelly asked Trump about his history of calling women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals,” a question that infuriated the New York billionaire.

Trump later said Kelly had appeared so angry during the debate that “you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Many interpreted his statement as referring to menstruation, which Trump denied.

“I might be the best thing that ever happened to her,” said Trump, who has also often insulted Kelly on Twitter. “Who ever heard of her before the last debate?”

A Fox News representative responded in an email: “Sooner or later Donald Trump, even if he’s president, is going to have to learn that he doesn’t get to pick the journalists — we’re very surprised he’s willing to show that much fear about being questioned by Megyn Kelly.”

The debate Thursday night in Des Moines will be the last before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, the first White House nominating contest of 2016.

So who's ahead in Iowa, Clinton or Sanders?

 (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

As the Democratic candidates prepare for their televised town hall meeting in Des Moines this evening, voters have been hit with a barrage of conflicting polls on the race.

At least 10 surveys have been publicly released in the last week and a half. Seven show Hillary Clinton leading, by margins of between 2 and 29 percentage points. Three show Bernie Sanders ahead by margins of between 1 and 8 percentage points.

Obviously, those can't all be accurately describing the same electorate; margin of error, random fluctuation and voters changing their minds won't account for that much variation.

So how to parse them? As I noted recently, one big difference among the polls is how they define who is likely to show up and vote at a caucus. The polls that cast a wide net -- implying a big turnout of first-time voters -- tend to show Sanders doing better.

Nate Cohn, who writes for the Upshot in the New York Times, points to another difference -- polls based on random-digit dialing have tended to show Sanders ahead, while those based on existing voter registration files have shown Clinton ahead.

The two facts point in the same direction: The race is close enough that either candidate could win. A Sanders victory would depend on turning out a lot of people who have not previously voted and potentially some who are not currently registered.

Texas job was Ted Cruz's ticket to the national stage -- and to loathing from colleagues

 (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Ted Cruz was 31 and working in the George W. Bush administration, yet he felt his career had flat-lined. The Ivy Leaguer with the superstar pedigree and no shortage of confidence had figured he’d be a top presidential advisor by then, but by his own later admission, he had alienated too many colleagues.

That’s when Cruz got a call that would return him to Texas for a career reset. Over the next five years, he turned the relatively obscure position of state solicitor general into a political launch pad so powerful that today, at 46, he is a senator and has become Donald Trump’s main rival for the GOP presidential nomination.

During his tenure as Texas’ chief appeals lawyer, from 2003 through 2008, Cruz demonstrated the qualities that have made him loved and loathed on the national stage. He showed how to distill complex legal issues in a way that attracted public attention -- and often won cases. He drew hard ideological lines that pushed the limits of conservatism and foreshadowed his own party’s turn to the right. He showed drive, creativity and entrepreneurial energy.

He also displayed an ego and talent for self-promotion that expanded the influence of his office even as it drew resentment from some colleagues and subordinates, who say he was petty and inflated his role as he lusted for the cameras.

Julian Castro, campaigning for Hillary Clinton, embarks on a vice presidential test run in Iowa

Julian Castro greets Sister Irene Muñoz, a Hillary Clinton volunteer, at a campaign event in Ottumwa, Iowa, on Sunday. (Kate Linthicum / Los Angeles Times)

Julian Castro greets Sister Irene Muñoz, a Hillary Clinton volunteer, at a campaign event in Ottumwa, Iowa, on Sunday. (Kate Linthicum / Los Angeles Times)

As the secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro’s ethnic roots, up-from-the-bootstraps story and quick ascent in politics have earned him comparisons to President Obama. He is frequently mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick for Hillary Clinton, should she prevail as the Democratic nominee.

In something of a test of Castro's campaigning abilities, he barnstormed Iowa on Sunday in the final stretch leading up to the state's Feb. 1 caucus. He visited several small cities with growing Latino populations and warned voters about the dire consequences of a Clinton loss and the possible return of the White House to Republican control.

“We absolutely can’t afford to hand over the presidency to the Republican Party,” Castro told a crowd in Fairfield, his second stop of the day. “Can you imagine what would happen if you have Speaker [Paul] Ryan, Senate Majority Leader [Mitch] McConnell and President Trump?”

“We’ve seen what they’ve done when they’ve had that kind of power,” he added, hinting at the kind of attack-dog sensibility that presidential candidates often rely on in a running mate.

Iowa governor stands by his criticism of Ted Cruz

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad isn’t apologizing for calling for Ted Cruz's defeat here in next week's caucuses.

"I just gave an honest answer to a point-blank question,” said Branstad, who caused waves last week when he told reporters that Cruz was a “big oil” candidate whose opposition to renewable energy mandates would hurt Iowa.

Speaking at his weekly news conference at the state capitol in downtown Des Moines on Monday, Branstad said his criticism of Cruz should not be read as an endorsement of GOP front-runner Donald Trump or anyone else in the Feb. 1 caucuses.

But, he said, it’s “critically important” that Iowa voters know where candidates stand.

“The voters of Iowa will make their choice,” he said. “I just want to make sure it’s an informed choice.”

Branstad opposes Cruz’s call for an end to the Renewable Fuel Standard, a law that requires oil refineries to blend in gasoline biofuels such as corn-based ethanol, an important industry in the state.

The governor said candidates vying for Iowa votes need to respect the state’s economy.

“Come to Iowa,” he said, “but stand for things that are important for our state and our country.”

He stressed that he was avoiding making an endorsement.

“I’m not backing any candidate,” he said. “I’m just advocating on behalf of my state.”

By the numbers

How does Clinton or Trump get to 270 electoral votes? Play with our map.

Third debate scorecard: Here's who's winning each round

All things Clinton | All things Trump

Who's endorsing who? Find out which celebrities support each candidate.

Find out which Republicans support Donald Trump

Get free news and analysis in your inbox daily from our political team.

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