ABC anchor David Muir and ABC chief foreign correspondent Martha Raddatz
The third Democratic presidential debate was held on December 19, 2015, on campus at St. Anselm's College in Manchester, New Hampshire. It was the final debate held by Democrats in 2015. As is usual for Democratic debates this season, the event was a face-off between clear frontrunner Hillary Clinton, solid but trailing rival Bernard Sanders, and modest candidate Martin O'Malley. Going into the showdown, Clinton headed the pack convincingly on the national stage, but Sanders had eked out an impressive lead over her in New Hampshire, the state where the debate was held and where the first primary was scheduled to occur on February 9 of 2016. This crucial contest came the very next day after Sanders' campaign formally filed suit against the Democratic National Committee, in protest for the DNC's move to limit the Sanders camp's access to voter information after Sanders staffers were caught breaching a database of Clinton campaign information.
ABC News hosted the debate, which was moderated by journalists David Muir and Martha Radditz, with contributions by Neil Levesque and Dan Tuohy. With the world still reeling from the terrorist attacks in Paris, the evening's focus was given as national security and foreign policy.
Despite this, the first question of the debate, asked by David Muir, was on the subject of Bernard Sanders' lawsuit against the DNC. Sanders explained that information concerning Hillary Clinton's campaign improperly made its way to his through official mishandling not related to the actions of his staffers, but that those staffers were wrong in their decision to look at and benefit from it when it was discovered. He said that he has already eliminated those people from his campaign and will continue to do so to anyone additional whom he finds was guilty, and he offered Clinton – and his supporters - an apology. Clinton was receptive, saying (as Sanders did) that she looks forward to continuing the investigation but that she agrees it is important to move on. Martin O'Malley complained that time was being spent on this matter while there were real concerns to address.
The evening quickly turned to more substantive issues, however, and true to the stated theme, gun control was soon discussed as it pertains to terrorism, specifically whether allowing Americans to remain armed is in fact the best defense against terrorist attacks. Sanders stated his position that while America is “a divided country” on guns, there was universally unanimous support for barring convicted criminals and insane people from firearm ownership, and for closing the so-called “gun show loophole” - claiming that ISIS has made training videos for its agents in the United States advising them that the best place to acquire assault rifles domestically is at a gun show. When Sanders finished on this point and the debate seemed set to move on, O'Malley abruptly pounced, speaking with incessant tenacity over David Muir's attempts to progress to other subjects. O'Malley sternly told the moderator “excuse me, no” over reminders that all candidates had agreed to the rules, and accused both Sanders and Clinton of embodying the infamous “political flip-flopping” of Washington on the issue of gun control. He pointed out that Sanders voted against the Brady Bill in the Senate, and claimed that Clinton changes her position concerning this matter regularly. Both candidates rebuked him, with Clinton gently stating “let's tell the truth, Martin,” and Sanders hotly relating the tale of an election he narrowly lost because of his support for gun control. “Do not tell me,” he said with anger, looking O'Malley in the eye, “that I have not shown courage in standing up to the gun people.”
In contrast to O'Malley's pointed outbursts, the interplay between top rivals Clinton and Sanders – even in light of the campaign information contention they were experiencing – was noticeably civil. When the issue of foreign policy in the Middle East was raised, Sanders was respectful and reserved in describing his deviations from Clinton's policies, even though he admitted that his disagreements with her were “deep” on ousting dictators in the region – Clinton supports measured US military action for this purpose, while Sanders argues that it has led to numerous unintended consequences including the rise of ISIS. Though Clinton was characteristically emphatic and passionate in delivering her points, at times she was casual and relaxed to a visible degree. After one commercial break, the debate resumed despite the absence of the center podium's occupant; about half a minute later, Clinton emerged from back stage and took her place, sheepishly muttering “sorry,” into the microphone to the laughter of the audience. Later, when the debate moved beyond national security issues and Muir asked her “should corporate America love Hillary Clinton?”, she beamed and replied “everybody should!”, to loud applause. Meanwhile, asked whether corporate America would love him, Sanders answered simply “no, they won't,” and drew his own applause.
Health care was discussed, with Sanders reiterating his outrage that the United States is, in his estimation, one of the world's only industrialized nations that does not guarantee medical services to its citizens as a right. Education came up, concerning the question of increasing Americans' access to college, as did wealth inequality and the growing gap between rich and poor.
The evening concluded with closing statements from each of the candidates. Sanders related his history as the son of a Polish immigrant and his late mother's dream of moving out of a rent-controlled apartment, which she never lived but which he hopes to make possible for many Americans beyond her. O'Malley denounced Republicans during their then-recent debate for their “anger and fear”, and said the Democratic party believed in improving America in various ways. Clinton warned of the dangers of a Republican taking office on January 20th, 2017 and the importance of preserving the social and legislative victories that have been won in the country. She had perhaps the wittiest and most creative closing of the debate, as she parodied the stereotypical “God bless the United States of America” often used by elected leaders with a reference to the release the night before of the new “Star Wars” movie.
Clinton said: “Thank you, good night, and may the Force be with you.”