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CNN Democratic Debate Special: Post-Debate Analysis. Aired 10:55p-12a ET

Aired January 17, 2016 - 22:55   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[22:55:09] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news. The Democratic presidential candidates just faced off in a heated debate. The race getting closer and more contentious with just two weeks to go before the first contest of this election year.

Tonight's brawl specifically about two issues dividing the Democratic Party: guns and money. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on the attack against Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, accusing him of not backing sensible gun control legislation, while Sanders fired back at Clinton, accusing her of being in the back pocket of Wall Street.

All of it playing out in South Carolina, a critical early primary state that will be the first test of the candidates' appeal in the south.

We're standing by to analyze it all. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is CNN's Democratic Debate Special.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

BLITZER: Right now you're looking at Gaillard Center in the heart of Charleston, South Carolina. It's where the Democratic candidates just squared off in their last debate before the first presidential votes of the 2016 election season are cast. During the debate, Senator Bernie Sanders pointed to his surge in the polls in the early voting states and predicted his support will grow.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: As Secretary Clinton well knows, when this campaign began she was 50 points ahead of me. We were all of 3 percentage points.

Guess what? In Iowa, New Hampshire, the race is very, very close. Maybe we're ahead in New Hampshire.

(APPLAUSE)

In terms of polling, guess what? we are running ahead of Secretary Clinton in terms of taking on my good friend Donald Trump, beating him by 19 points in New Hampshire, 13 points in the last national poll that I saw.

To answer your question, when the African-American community becomes familiar with my congressional record and with our agenda and with our views on the economy and criminal justice, just as the general population has become more supportive, so will the African-American community, so will the Latino community. We have the momentum. We're on a path toward victory.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: With us tonight our senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny; our senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson; the former Obama senior adviser, our CNN senior political commentator David Axelrod; and our CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash.

Last week the secretary, Secretary Clinton called for a pretty reliable issue to be debated, namely the issue of guns, her position on immunity for lawsuits for gun manufacturers. All of this unfolding right now. I've got a clip. I want to play a little clip. The Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, on guns.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look, I have made it clear based on Senator Sanders' own record that he has voted with the NRA, with the gun lobby, numerous times. He voted against the Brady Bill five times. He voted for what we call the Charleston loophole. He voted for immunity from gun makers and sellers, which the NRA said was the most important piece of gun legislation in 20 years. He voted --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Let's bring in Jeff Zeleny. First of all, your impressions. You've been out there on the campaign trail. Your initial impressions of this debate.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I think that the three central issues tonight were -- was that exchange on guns, on healthcare, and then on Wall Street as well.

But on guns to start with, I mean, one thing that I was struck by in this debate, Bernie Sanders for the first time was on the defense. He was being challenged. We've not seen that happen before. Up until now the spotlight has been on Secretary Clinton. The burden has been on her. That changed a bit tonight, and I don't think he handled it very well. On issue after issue, she pretty much -- I wouldn't say wiped the floor with him but she pretty much dominated the issues.

On guns, specifically, he did not even respond to her long set of arguments there. On healthcare, she tied herself so tightly to President Obama. That's what I was struck by tonight more than anything. She is trying to keep her support among black voters, so important in South Carolina and beyond, so she basically said he would blow up the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. And then finally on Wall Street, I think he did score some points on reminding people that she's been paid by Goldman Sachs and other things. But tonight did not change anything and it calmed some agitation, some anxiety, in Democratic circles, supporters of her. I think she had a very strong night.

BLITZER: You guys stand by for a moment. I want to introduce some of our other political contributors who are here with us as well. Bakari Sellers is a former Democratic member of the South Carolina house of representatives.

[23:00:02] Democratic strategist Paul Begala is an adviser to a pro- Hillary Clinton super PAC. Our political commentator, the writer, S.E. Cupp is with us. Also joining us, "The Atlantic" media editor Peter Beinart, also a CNN contributor.

Dana, you've been covering this campaign for a long time. The Democrats and the Republicans, your initial impressions.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, I was watching it and thinking over and over that Bernie Sanders kind of put himself out there as the dreamer. What he would do if it's possible as a progressive, as a liberal? And with every turn, Hillary Clinton said, "no, I'm the doer, like I'm the pragmatist here". That's really nice. That's really nice to have all those big thoughts and dreams of Bernie Sanders, but this is what can and can't be done, particularly as you were mentioning Jeff on health care.

You know, she was kind of trying to bring everybody back to reality, saying sure, you want to have universal health care, but guess what, the president had a super majority in the Senate. Or I should say he had a 60-vote threshold in the Senate of Democrats and he couldn't even get universal health care done. So good luck to you.

BLITZER: It was a pretty fierce exchange on that whole issue of guns, David Axelrod, as well as health care.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yeah. And I agree with Jeff. I think Bernie Sanders doesn't have a good answer on guns because he was voting his state, not his ideology. And he still -- all these months later still hasn't come up with a good answer on that.

On health care, I agree with Dana. I think the whole strategy for Hillary tonight was to position herself as the pragmatic doer, the person who knows how to get things done and to push Bernie over to the side of the sort of airy-fairy dreamer.

I think she went over the line a little bit. Anytime you suggest that he - that Bernie Sanders doesn't want health care or he's going to take health care away from people, doesn't line up with that notion of him as the airy-fairy dreamer and it's not really consistent with his record. So, there are a couple of places where she went over the line. But on the whole, I think she sort of dominated the terms of the debate.

BLITZER: She was very, very passionate on these issues. But Bernie Sanders was extremely passionate as well.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right. And yeah, a lot of I think yelling tonight from both of them really on that stage. It's so important that it was in South Carolina, right? President Obama have a 90 percent approval rating in South Carolina. Hillary Clinton has about an 80 percent of approval rating in there. And there, you have Bernie Sanders saying listen, at some point African-Americans are going to hear my message and they're going to come on board with the rest of the population, as if they're not part of the population.

But it's a tough argument that he's got to make there. I think to African-Americans were familiar with the Clintons. It's about six months that he's been really trying to target African-American voters and the Clintons have been doing...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: By approval ratings for the president and the secretary among Democrats.

HENDERSON: Among Democrats, exactly.

BLITZER: Specifically, not among all South Carolina.

HENDERSON: Right, exactly. Yeah. Yeah.

AXELROD: I have to tell you that someone who worked for Barack Obama in 2008. It was really interesting to me because it was it's on South Carolina where we had the fiercest debates with Hillary Clinton.

HENDERSON: Right. Yeah.

AXELROD: And they were going at it hammer and tong. And to see her cleave as closely as she did to...

UNDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.

AXELROD: ... President Obama tonight was really, really fascinating to me.

BLITZER: He was very, very close. Peter Beinart, your initial impressions.

PETER BEINART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, what's striking about this whole campaign is that Hillary Clinton is the front-runner and yet she's much more aggressive in attacking the insurgent Bernie Sanders than vice versa. That's not usually the way it works. But you can see how effective it was tonight. T he fact that guns has become such a central issue on this campaign, where's the one -- which is the one issue where Hillary Clinton is more in touch with progressive activists than Bernie Sanders and that she's made that front and center as the testament to the way she's framed the campaign.

He by contrast was not able to make this debate about the issues on which she is out of touch with liberals. He never mentioned her support for the Iraq war. That was a big part of the reason Barack Obama beat her. She is more hawkish than most Democratic voters are on foreign policy and he never exposed that. That's why I think she ended up winning.

BLITZER: A lot of people say national security, foreign policy issues as far as Bernie Sanders. S.E. Cupp is concerned. Not necessarily his strongest point.

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yeah. I think that came across tonight. Anytime you're comparing Iran to Cuba. I think it's not going to go over well in a general to suggest we need to normalize relations with Iran nor with our ally Israel.

But I thought what was remarkable piggybacking off what Peter said, for guns to be such a big issue and not to be one of the priorities any Democrat listed in their list of priorities is at the top of the debate is remarkable. Also, national security foreign policy defeating ISIS, defeating terrorism not one of the priorities of any Democrat on that stage at the top of the debate.

I think what that says is even though Hillary Clinton, I think won this debate. Bernie Sanders is setting this agenda for this election. They all talked about raising the minimum wage. They talked about economic issues. They jam-packed the top of the debate with domestic issues. And they also sounded like Bernie Sanders.

[23:05:07] When I think very clearly, Hillary Clinton would rather talk about foreign policy and guns. And yet knew at the top of this debate to stick to the sort of Bernie Sanders line items of the economy.

BLITZER: Paul, you're a Hillary Clinton supporter.

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I am.

BLITZER: But Bernie Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire. He's doing amazing right now against her.

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: He's running a great campaign and that's why. This is what's interesting. And I'm all for Hillary. Hey, but just as an analyst. He's doing everything right in Iowa and New Hampshire. He's engaging folks in the grassroots. He's talking about as I think Nia said about being a dreamer rather than a doer. Maybe that was Dana. Sorry, guys. And I think that's terrific.

The problem is he need a second act. And Barack Obama had a second act. Right, he was ready to go into Nevada and in South Carolina and the rest of the country. And I think tonight, I think Senator Sanders a little more tentative going into that audience. I disagree to this. I think Hillary did dominate the agenda on guns and national security especially with free advice for Bernie and I mean this. Just say I was wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Exactly.

BEGALA: I was wrong to vote to immunize gone corporations for...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.

BEGALA:... I was wrong. Hillary was wrong about the Iraq War and she said it. That's why it didn't come up. Because she candidly admitted she was wrong.

(CROSSTALK)

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think one thing that Hillary Clinton understood is where she was. This debate was held within the same block as Emanuel A.M.E. She knows that even if Barack Obama - I mean excuse me, I dare not do that. Even if Bernie Sanders wins, Iowa and New Hampshire, he still has to do extremely well not only in South Carolina but in Super Tuesday. And what she did was she took the debate to Bernie Sanders which many of her supporters were waiting for her to do. She dominated the gun issue. There's no doubt about it.

And if Bernie Sanders - this is some more of free advice. I doubt he'll take it. But if Bernie Sanders would actually come out and simply say, I apologize for my vote in 1993, the Charleston loophole. I mean those types of things. I think will change the tenor in some of the debate. But he had no response to Hillary Clinton.

BLITZER: It's not very often. Dana, you're going to hear a candidate say I was wrong.

BASH: No. And, you know, Bernie Sanders his whole kind of brand is to be the kind of person who would or should say that. I mean that's kind of how he's coming across as. He's supposed to be the authentic one in the Democratic race, right? But he hasn't done that. And I think it just goes to show that even Bernie Sanders is - he's a politician and he's somebody who has lived for, you know, he's sort of the fresh face in politics which is kind of ironic.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: I was going to say that he has been in politics for a long time and he has represented Vermont for a very long time, where that was the vote that you take. Period. End of story.

BLITZER: It's a rural state. Guns are an important issue.

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: But you know Iowa, you know New Hampshire, you know South Carolina which is the third contest. The Democratic caucus goers, the Democratic primary voters in these three states, they have different agendas by and large.

AXELROD: They do. And I think this is important, Wolf, because before we go down the road too far on Bernie bashing we should point out that there was a poll in the Des Moines Register this week in which voters more than 40 percent that they identify with the word socialist. It's a very left caucus. I think they heard a lot of things - I think S.E. is right. You know, he has a very clear message. It's about banks and billionaires and injustice and inequality. It comes across clearly. I thought there were a few bad moments for Secretary Clinton. One of them was when he went after her on her Goldman Sachs money. And she never really gave a very good answer. And she seemed a little bit torqued up at that point by it. So he really scored and he scored on his turf. And my guess is that among his supporters Bernie did fairly well tonight.

SELLERS: Well, let me tell in real quick. We got, I mean one thing and I will never disagree with you actually. We've been on a team together before.

AXELROD: I give you leave to do so.

SELLERS: Thank you. However, I will say that one thing that nobody really points out is that Iowa and New Hampshire don't look like the rest of the Democratic primary.

AXELEOD: Right, of course.

SELLERS: I mean when you go into South Carolina and you're talking about 50 percent African-American turnout. You go into Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia. You're talking about this African-American turnout. That's going to be very robust.

And one thing that no one said yet that Hillary Clinton did say. She used the correct language today. She talked about systemic racism in the criminal justice system. I mean, that was the phrase that stuck out to me. That's going to be the phrase that sticks out to millennials. That's going to be the phrase that sticks out to African-American voters. And I think she understood that and that is the language Bernie Sanders has been using along the campaign, but today she just outdebated him.

BEINART: And that's really the impact of Black Lives Matter.

SELLERS: Exactly.

BEINART: I mean you saw the way in which Black Lives Matter has made race and criminal justice a top issue, kind of subject in this debate. It's not for the Republicans at all. It doesn't come up. But it is and they have really changed this debate.

BLITZER: Bakari, Hillary Clinton does well with Democratic African- American voters. Bernie Sanders is largely unknown to...

SELLERS: Correct.

BLITZER: ... black African-American Democratic voters. They don't really know him. So they don't have much of a sense of him.

SELLERS: Well, I mean that's true. And Bernie is doing the correct things. I mean Bernie's campaign is amazing. I mean, the things he's doing are actually correct.

[23:10:02] I know Nia just wrote an article about the things Bernie Sanders was actually doing in South Carolina. He's starting an HBCU tour. He's talking about going to barbershops and beauty salons. But he's doing it now.

HENDERSON: Yeah.

SELLERS: I mean he's doing it in January, I mean we're not that far away from the Southern Carolina.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It actually looked like he's been to a barbershop.

HENDERSON: No, it's true. It looks like --

SELLERS: What does he needs to do?

HENDERSON: You know, in some ways he is running at a time. I think that's going to be a big barrier here. I think also the socialism tag is a bit of a barrier you're talking about that South Carolina, they're more -- much more moderate. They're much more conservative, a conservative Democratic voters. You see I think from Hillary Clinton she's got top surrogates as she went down there with Eric Holder for instance.

A lot of her surrogates fanned out this Sunday the African-American churches, maybe that's something of Bernie Sanders needs. He's got to spend time down there even on his tour of HBCUs. He's not going, he's sending Cornel West, for instance, who he has heavily has criticized President Obama, so that might not be the right surrogate to necessarily send.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINTON CORRESPONDENT: He needs to do one thing. He needs to win Iowa and New Hampshire. If he does, he gets to second look in South Carolina no question at all. That's why Secretary Clinton tonight was hugging the President so tightly. She wants to keep this Obama coalition we've talked so much about.

Bernie Sanders is s doing really well among the independent voters, among younger voters and things. She needs to lock that support, but if he wins in Iowa and or New Hampshire he does get a second look.

(CROSSTALK)

ZELENY: I was in South Carolina over the weekend. I was impressed by how many African-American leaders and voters as Bakari said who are open to supporting Senator Sanders.

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: On Bakari's point, it is true, you know, there's been a lot of hand ringing in the Clinton camp this week and it's spilled into the newspaper which is a problem I think. And the fact is it's not warranted Iowa was always going to be tough for her, New Hampshire was always going to be tough for her.

SELLERS: Exactly.

AXELROD: And she was going to do better as she moved on. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.

AXELROD: So she could lose those two states...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let's listen to this statement. This is Bernie Sanders speaking about the President of the United States.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BERNIE SANDERS, (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Set the record right. In 2006 when I ran for the Senate, Senator Barack Obama was kind enough to campaign for me. 2008, I did my best to see that he was elected and in 2012 I worked as hard as I could to see that he was re- elected. He and I are friends. We've worked together on many issues. We have some differences of opinion.

HILLARY CLINTON, (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think since Senator Sanders followed up on this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 30 seconds response.

CLINTON: Your profusion of comments about your feelings toward President Obama are a little strange given what you said about him in 2011.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Does everybody remember what the...

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: Bernie Sanders was -- yes, I have some memory of that. He was part of the group on the left that felt that Barack Obama was insufficient defiant that he compromised too much and that there are good challenge from the left in the primaries. That is the history and it's hard to walk...

(CROSSTALK)

BEINART: I think this is why -- I think this is where Bernie Sanders has really failed to not invoke Iraq. The strongest answer in a Democratic primary to that is which side were you on, on the Iraq war and which side was I on? I think David as far as absolutely right that Sanders is to Obama's left, but he needs to remind people that there was an ideological division between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton the problem in 2008.

BEGALA: That was 12 years ago. She did say she was wrong about that and Obama won the election primary in large measure because of that vote. I was there in Iowa. One of the great events in Iowa it was the Tom Harkin Steak Fry.

In 2011, one of the greatest honors in my career I was invited to speak there as was Bernie Sanders. So, Bernie and I spoke there. He was great. I was OK. He was great just what you see. Fiery and authentic -- it was rainy day and I thought the field was going to catch fire. But you know he was not, he was not teeing up the Obama re-election in 2012 that was my thinking. I think, OK, I got to go after and start laying the ground working in a swing state for my guy, our President.

I called my friends in the White House that day I said, this guy could run against you. He's that unhappy with Barack Obama. There's nothing wrong with that. David is right. There are some brief principle to opposition from the left, but that's Hillary was not punished. She ran against him in the primary, joined his government and has been I think a key ally.

BLITZER: Or remember, S.E., Bernie Sanders is an independent...

CUPP: Yeah.

BLITZER: ...senator from Vermont. He's not a Democrat senator from Vermont.

CUPP: Yeah, look I, you know, like I said I think Hillary did great tonight, but I think she over did it on the Obama embracing a couple of times. And I think it looked a little petty, a little small, a little desperate actually when they were talking about health care. And, you know, Bernie Sanders just a couple hours before the debate revealed his health care plan and all she had to say was your plan is going to raise taxes on middle class Americans.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah.

CUPP: That's all she had to say. You know, your plan out taxes Sweden is all she had to say and instead she decided to make it about Obama.

She decided to say, your plan is a vote against Obama's plan. And I just thought that was really missed opportunity to take a very easy shot against what I think a lot of progressives will like coming out of Bernie.

[23:15:07] BLITZER: Bakari, listen to this, everybody listen to this. This is the secretary of state talking about Bernie Sanders raising taxes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: I'm the only candidate standing here tonight who has said I will not raise taxes on the middle class.

SANDERS: What is correct and I am disappointed that Secretary Clinton's campaign has made this criticism. It's a Republican criticism. Secretary Clinton does know a lot about health care and she understands, I believe, that a medicare for all single pay off program will substantially lower the cost of health care for middle class families.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: You but that explanation?

SELLERS: Well, I thought Hillary Clinton in that debate in that back and forth channeled a lot of Bill Clinton.

I heard a lot of DLC. I heard a lot of blue dog talking points in that whole back and forth.

One of the things that struck me during this debate was when she attacked Bernie Sanders on raising taxes to go to S.E.'s point which she should have done. And what she did do was she talked about the fact that he was going to raise taxes to pay for not just (inaudible) leave but it's going to raise taxes who do not pay for health care. And for me talking about how he was going to raise taxes just channeled so much Bill Clinton that, you know, I thought that Bernie didn't do a good job of bouncing back...

BLITZER: And Jeff, only two hours or so before the debate Senator Sanders released his initiative his heath care initiative, medicare for all as he like to call it.

ZELENY: Right. And he's been -- he's out of tough week on this actually because the Clinton campaign has been after him to say, how would you pay for all of this?

So, I think that he did not, you know, he released his plan right before the debate but he didn't solve this. T his is going to go on and on and on. I think the reason that she did not ask him about taxes is because it was in South Carolina. I believe she will keep doing that this week when she campaigns in Iowa but this is was all about her embracing Obama, but as David said earlier the attack might have been overboard because people don't believe that Bernie Sanders wants to take away their health care.

And the reality is depending on who's controlling the house or the senate, probably republicans. And this is a tough, tough, tough one --

BLITZER: And Dana, you covered congress for a long time. The democrats had a hard enough time getting the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare through let alone Medicare for all if you will.

BASH: Yeah. Of course, and that was Hillary Clinton's point. I still think that there are Democrats who actually -- most of them are not even in the senate now, but who still have kind of, you know, marks on their arms or from being twisted.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because they lost.

BASH: Yeah, these are Democrats. Democrats who just were not sharp, that even with the president did, they thought it was too far.

BLITZER: We're only getting started we have a lot more coming up once again. Former President Bill Clinton's past trends suggestions (ph) loomed large in this debate. We're going to tell you what was said that's coming up. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC ANCHOR: You called Bill Clinton's past transgressions "totally, totally, totally disgraceful and unacceptable." Senator do you regret saying that?

SANDERS: I was asked a questions, you know, one of the things...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[23:21:51] BLITZER: Welcome back to our CNN debate special. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Former President Bill Clinton, his name came up during the course of this debate. The former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked what role he might play in a Clinton Administration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the first time that a spouse of a former president could be elected president. You have said that President Clinton would advise you on economic issues. But be specific if you can. Are you talking about a kitchen table role on economics or will he have a real policy role?

HILLARY CLINTON, (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, it will start at the kitchen table. We'll see how it goes from there. I'm going to have the very best advisers that I can possibly have. And when it comes to the economy and what was accomplished under my husband's leadership in the '90s, especially when it came to raising incomes for everybody and lifting more people out of poverty than at any time in recent history, you bet, I'm going to ask for his ideas. I'm going to ask for his advice. And I'm going to use him as a goodwill emissary to go around the country to find the best ideas we've got because I do believe, as he said, everything that's wrong with America has been solved somewhere in America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: David Axelrod, pretty good answer, especially for a democratic audience.

AXELROD: I think Bill Clinton is broadly popular. He's remembered as someone who led us through very strong economic times, where incomes were growing. So to put him in that role, as she did, but not to do it in a formal way, I thought it was very deft. I had the suspicion that maybe they thought that question might come up.

SELLERS: Let me talk about President Clinton. I mean I think it's going to be interesting because we do remember, especially in South Carolina, where President Clinton came in and after Barrack Obama won he said it was a fairy tale...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah. SELLERS: ... and even Jesse Jackson won South Carolina. We also have to remember that especially in this Black Lives Matter movement one of the looming issues with Secretary Clinton is mass incarceration, is the Clinton bill that was signed in 1994.

So yes, I mean there are some serious issues that we have to delve into with President Clinton but I compare President Clinton to Michael Jordan wearing the 45. You know, he's still the best player in the game. So you've got to use him. He's the consummate politician. He's the best player we have on our Democratic bench. And it's the best player that Hillary Clinton has. So you've got to trot him out there and see what happens.

BLITZER: Senator...

AXELROD: Once he came back, Michael Jordan, he went back to number 23 and won three championships.

SELLERS: Exactly.

BLITZER: Senator Sanders was also asked to explain some comments he made about former President Bill Clinton's transgressions, as he called it. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC ANCHOR: You called Bill Clinton's past transgressions "totally, totally, totally disgraceful and unacceptable." Senator, do you regret saying that?

BERNIE SANDERS, (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I was asked a question -- you know, one of the things, Andrea, and that question annoys me. I cannot walk down the street -- Secretary Clinton knows this. Without being told how much I have to attack Secretary Clinton. Want to get me on the front pages of the paper? I make some vicious attack.

[23:25:05] I have avoided doing that. Trying to run an issue-oriented campaign.

I was asked a question...

MITCHELL: You didn't have to answer it that way. Why did you?

SANDERS: Well, then I don't answer it that is another front page -- yes. And I mean this seriously. You know that. We've been through this. Yes, his behavior was deplorable. Have I ever once said a word about that issue? No, I have not. I'm going to debate Secretary Clinton and Governor O'malley on the issues facing the American people, not Bill Clinton's personal behavior.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Paul Begala, you served in the White House under President Bill Clinton. You remember those days. BEGALA: It was very few people probably spent more time with him during that period than I did. Morning, noon, and night. What Bernie said was mild compared to what Bill Clinton said about himself. This is a totally unfair question. And I love Andrea Mitchell. She's a great journalist. Totally unfair question. Bernie, I thought he knocked it out of the park.

He is not going at Hillary or her husband personally. He wants to run on issues, he's going to run on issues. I thought that was true. Look, this is one of Carville, my old partner, James Carville, one of his old laws, if there's something too dirty or vile for you to raise in a campaign, don't worry, some journalist will do it. And that's what happened here. I'm sorry. It had no place in the debate. These two wanted to debate Wall Street and guns and Iran and taxes, health care. Nobody wants to talk about, you know, something...

CUPP: But that moment was so uncomfortable for so many reasons. One, the idea that a 74-year-oldman is having to talk about sex in any way so really off-putting. The other that he's doing it about someone's husband. She's right next to him. She's standing...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Exactly.

CUPP: ... right there. And saying what he did was deplorable, which is not controversial, by the way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.

CUPP: The other idea -- that she was just effusively, you know, singing Bill's praises about what role he'd play and how valuable he'd be. This is why for someone like me and I think a lot of other people she's a very uncomfortable feminist. I know that doesn't matter to her supporters. But for that moment encapsulated all of the reasons why she is a very uncomfortable feminist for women...

BASH: But I thought...

BLITZER: Hold on. One at a time. Go ahead, Peter.

BEINART: It also encapsulated why people like Bernie Sanders.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Exactly. Yeah.

BEINART: Because Bernie Sanders' selling point authenticity. The fact he doesn't go for the cheap shot...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah.

BEINART: ... but he stays true to who he is. You could argue he would benefit if there were more people in the race and some other people were going after Hillary Clinton and cutting her up a little because there are issues of character and authenticity according to the polls. But he cannot do that because it's not who he is and he's running on who he is. That's the reason he's doing well.

BLITZER: Dana, if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee will Republicans, the Republican opposition, whoever the republican nominee is, will they be reluctant to talk about Bill Clinton and transgressions during the course of the campaign?

AXELROD: What about Donald Trump would he would?

BASH: Everybody would except Donald Trump. Yes. I mean, you know, he's doing it now. I don't know that anybody else really would because I'm not sure neighbor else thinks it would work. I mean, look, there are a lot of people who were around, maybe around this table, who were around in the '90s and...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not so much.

BASH: OK. Were you even born in the '90s

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Bill and Hillary Clinton, (inaudible), these are some live pictures. They're at a debate watch party in Charleston right now. We'll see if they show up, if they make some comments. We'll listen in live. But go ahead.

BASH: Just really quickly, the point is that when it was Bill Clinton's problem, almost in the moment Republicans tried to make it an issue and if didn't work. So why is it going to work 20 years later with his wife? I just don't see it.

AXELROD: Leaving aside the question of 74-year-old man talking about sex, which is an uncomfortable subject for me as an aging man.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah.

AXELROD: I will say I agree with peter. I think that was maybe Bernie Sanders' best moment of the whole night.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.

AXELROD: And that was one I think every Democrat was cheering when he gave that answer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yeah.

AXELROD: And everyone who cares about civility in politics was cheering when he gave that answer.

BLITZER: Nia, what was your reaction??

HENDERSON: I think that's right. But, you know, the reality is you do have Donald Trump who did bring up this topic about Bill Clinton's infidelities and indiscretions and to me it looks like Republicans want to go somewhere else with this, which is if Hillary Clinton is such a great feminist, if she's such a great role model for women, if she's such a champion of women, then what was her sort of role in demonizing those women or not standing up for them? So I think that would be something that possibly comes up now in a different way because we are in a different period in terms of how we talk about women and how they are treated in the workplace than we were in the '90s.

BASH: I think the question about whether or not she played a role in demonizing the women is totally fair game.

HENDERSON: Yeah.

[23:30:03] BASH: I think questioning, you know, why she stayed -- like who cares?

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: She got that question. She got that question at a town meeting and she didn't handle it particularly --

BLITZER: Let's listen and see if we can get some audio. We'll eavesdrop. Here's the former president and the former secretary of state.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(OFF-MIC)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: Let me say just a couple of things seriously. This -- it was a great serious debate. I think if you just listened carefully and watched them, first, I'm glad to be a Democrat because they had no total air of unreality when discussing a lot of these issues.

And I give that credit to the other candidates. But having done that job and seeing the pitfalls if you make the wrong decisions about who gets to do it, there's only one person I can imagine being president of the United States.

I thought it was evident in her discussion on health care policy, her discussion of economic policy, and her discussion of foreign policy. And that's a big part of the job and everybody here in South Carolina knows that a Democrat has to be credible on protecting United States of America...

(CROSSTALK)

BILL CLINTON: But if we had just turned in for the last question on the lead in the water in Flint, Michigan, and you heard the three answers, you would have no doubt that Hillary answered that question the way you would want any president of United States...

(CROSSTALK)

CLINTON: Thank you for being with her and staying with her. Let's keep the enthusiasm...

(CROSSTALK) (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. We're going to take a quick break. Just ahead, much more. We'll also have a fact check of some of the candidates' claims tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[23:35:53] BLITZER: The Democratic presidential candidates just completed their final debate before the first voting begins. Let's take a look at some of the highlights.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BERNIE SANDERS, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Guess what? In Iowa, New Hampshire, the race is very, very close. Maybe we're ahead in New Hampshire.

In terms of polling, guess what? We are running ahead of Secretary Clinton in terms of taking on my good friend Donald Trump.

HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Sadly it's reality. And it has been heartbreaking and incredibly outraging to see the constant stories of young men like Walter Scott, as you said, who have been killed by police officers.

There needs to be a concerted effort to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system.

SANDERS: We have a criminal justice system which is broken.

HILLARY CLINTON: We finally have a path to universal health care. We've accomplished so much already. I do not want to see the Republicans repeal it, and I don't want to see us start over again with a contentious debate. I want us to defend and build on the Affordable Care Act and improve it.

SANDERS: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator Sanders.

SANDERS: Secretary Clinton didn't answer your question.

Because what her campaign was saying, Bernie Sanders, who has fought for universal health care for my entire life, he wants to end Medicare and Medicaid and the children's health insurance program.

That is nonsense. Tell me why we are spending almost three times more than the British who guarantee health care to all of their people. Can you really reform Wall Street, when they are spending millions and millions of dollars on campaign contributions and when they are providing speaker fees to individuals? So it's easy to say, "Well, I'm going to do this and do that." But I have doubts when people receive huge amounts of money from Wall Street. I am very proud. I do not have a Super PAC. I do not want Wall Street's money. I'll rely on the middle class and working class and working family... (CROSSTALK)

MARTIN O'MALLEY, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: ... I have a question for you.

HILLARY CLINTON: You know, I think since Senator Sanders followed up on this.

O'MALLEY: Thirty second response.

HILLARY CLINTON: Your profusion of comments about your feelings toward President Obama are a little strange given what you said about him in 2011. But look, I have a plan that most commentators have said is tougher, more effective and more comprehensive.

SANDERS: That's not true.

HILLARY CLINTON: It builds on the Dodd-Frank - yes it is.

SANDERS: It is beyond my comprehension. How we can elect a president of the United States, somebody like Trump, who believes that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese.

HILLARY CLINTON: Our first line of defense against lone wolf attacks is among Muslim-Americans. And it is not only shameful, it is dangerous for the kinds of comments you're hearing from the republican side.

O'MALLEY: If Donald Trump wants to start a registry in our country of people by faith, he can start with me. And I will sign up as one who is totally opposed to his fascist appeals that wants to vilify American-Muslims.

SANDERS: Yes, his behavior was deplorable. Have I ever once said a word about that issue? No, I have not. I'm going to debate Secretary Clinton and Governor O'Malley on the issues facing the American people, not Bill Clinton's personal behavior.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny, the accusation that the senator makes against Hillary Clinton is that she's basically in the back pocket of Wall Street.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: And that is what's driving a lot of his supporters. And that's one of the reasons that I think that -- and even though I think she was stronger overall in the debate tonight, I think his supporters, they love when he calls that out. And it's why they are suspicious of her.

Now, I think she did a better job handling it tonight. She didn't say that she supported Wall Street because of 9/11. A couple of debates ago she said that which was kind of awkward and...

[23:40:10] BASH: Terrible.

HENDERSON: Not true.

ZELENY: That's right, but I think that that is one of the things that is driving his supporters and we'll keep in such so.

The Clinton campaign knows that Bernie Sanders has a lot of support out there. They want to try to keep it about at 40 percent or so. We'll see if they can do it.

In Iowa Bernie Sanders still has some supporters. I don't think this debate probably changed anything at all. So that means that this race is still deadlocked in those two early states.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But this is yeah...

BLITZER: Yeah, hold on, hold on.

HENDERSON: And I think he's always able to turn it back to money, right? And big money corrupting politics, even when they were talking about bringing Washington together, Hillary Clinton have this, you know, very typical answer which was she's worked across out with Republicans, people like Tom DeLay and people like John McCain.

And he said listen, you can't really get anything done, you can't even move Washington forward unless you throw the big money out of politics. So this is, you know, this is what people love. This is what people are tweeting all about Bernie Sanders and they're such rabid Bernie Sanders, right, because he's got this passion to take it to the billionaires.

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yeah, I just, you know, actually when I have had this debate before about whether Bernie needs to start taking Hillary on a little more decisively. And I just don't understand. I mean Hillary has through herself in surrogates at one time or another on the campaign trail, you know, she had Joaquin Castro saying he doesn't care about the Hispanic community.

She kind of alleged that he was sexist for saying that she was shouting about guns. She had Chelsea talking about how he wanted to dismantle health care, which I know you thought was the wrong tone.

Between the racism and the sexism and the - he's a gun toter and he hates Medicare, between all of that don't you think there's enough...

BLITZER: But she means it in a nice way.

(CROSSTALK)

CUPP: Don't you think Bernie Sanders needs to say, enough with this, have you no sense of his...

AXELROD: Hillary Clinton is blessed with an opponent who doesn't want to go full throttle against her. And that is part of his appeal. But the question going to this debate was would he go beyond where he's been before? And he did sort of incrementally. But you could really go to town with $600,000 in speakers' fees from Goldman Sachs. And he just - that's not his inclination. PETER BEINART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTTOR: But it's more than that. He's also not that well prepared. I mean one of the things you see -- she is and this is always something that's true for Hillary Clinton. She's always very well prepared.

She had that bill to throw out there about the fact that he voted for this derivatives bill to deregulate derivatives. He wasn't able to respond. Bill Clinton signed that very bill. He didn't have the level of policy homework. She knew to mention flint. She knew that would be very well received. He didn't have an answer in his back pocket on that last question, throw out something new. I think that's been part of the difference here.

BASH: But - I think that's true. But I do think that he went a lot further in this debate than he ever has before in trying to kind of chip away at some of her weak spots.

But I think that probably is as far as he probably will go. But to Bernie Sanders' supporters I don't know that they will want him to be that aggressive.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: She gets the nomination. She has to make sure that Bernie Sanders' base is there for her.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Bingo. Absolutely. And vice versa, by the way, I think Bernie has a very good chance, likelihood even, of winning Iowa and New Hampshire. But I still think Hillary is by far the prohibitive if they would've be the nominee. Both of them know that, though.

Back in the day working for Bill Clinton he was running against a bunch of people, one of them was Paul Tsongas, who I just couldn't stand, God bless his soul. Because I would - that's all kinds of really hyperbolic just vicious attacks. But, you know what, Bill Clinton used to say, I might just win and then where will we be? No, it's don't burn any bridges.

And the contrast, I know S.E. is trying to make it seem like there are personal attacks in the Democratic Party. They're not. The contrast between the Republican Party and their debate and the vicious personal insulting which I love...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: ... it's the Marcus of Queensbury rule, it's just extraordinary.

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: For a long period time people were wanting Hillary Clinton to actually engage an opponent for a long period of time she was just on this course, on this track to the nomination, and S.E. and everyone else was saying why don't you all actually have a primary?

And now Hillary Clinton is actually running in political circles as a full contact sport. And that is what she's doing.

AXELROD: Yeah but I think that she went from 0 to 60 awfully fast. And it does bespeak...

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: I mean yeah, I think it could have been done more artfully.

BASH: ... to you.

AXELROD: A little bit but I don't think...

BEGALA: 15 miles an hour. Is she 16 nobody (ph) in terms of...

CUPP: Well, do you think its fair...

(CROSSTALK)

CUPP: ... that Bernie Sanders doesn't care about the Hispanic community?

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: Paul, when you say Bernie Sanders trying to take away your Medicaid, you know...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: No, let me answer. She cleaned that up tonight. Basically what she's saying is...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She doubled down.

BEGALA: I'm more pragmatic if he's more idealistic.

[23:45:01] AXELROD: Yeah.

BEGALA: Let's let the python swallow the pig. OK?

AXELROD: Explain that one to me.

BEGALA: Because we'd just done this huge thing of ObamaCare. Let's let it move through the system, it might actually work. Rather than scrap the whole thing...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: ... which is what he's calling for.

BEINART: She's not, unlike Barack Obama, a candidate who inspires Democrats the way -- and the danger is that Bernie Sanders could inspire some Democrats. So for her to take him down a peg like this is very important for her to win. She can't win the way Barack Obama won in 2008 by making...

AXELROD: But sometimes you can take a person down, try to take a... SELLERS: And you take yourself.

AXELROD: And by the way you do it is, you end up elevating them and hurting yourself.

BLITZER: It was a spirited lively debate. But it could have been more spirited, more lively, that's what a lot of people.

So, just -- and just ahead our reality check team has been looking into some of the claims made by the candidates tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[23:50:00] BLITZER: Our reality check team has been looking into some of the claims made by the candidates tonight. Let's bring in our Tom Foreman. What are you looking at, Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, one of the big issues down here was the idea of big banks out there. Both Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders said that Hillary Clinton is in the pocket of the big banks and they are not. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANDERS: The first difference is I don't take money from big banks. I don't get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: And Martin O'Malley jumped in and he said he doesn't take even a penny from these sorts of things. So, the basic claim here, first about Hillary Clinton here, when she left the secretary's job, she did make a lot of money from speaking to these big banks, including Goldman Sachs, some other big firms out there, more than $3 million in 2013 alone. They've also been big contributors to her.

Beyond that though, let's ask about what these fellows have been up to, the record seems to indicate that Bernie Sanders really doesn't get any money from these folks. Martin O'Malley got into a mistake here though when said he doesn't get a penny. He actually doesn't get much from them, but he does get a little bit. So in the end our verdict on this has to be that what Bernie Sanders said is true, what Martin O'Malley said is false.

If we move on to this one, though, this is interesting. At Issue, President Obama, Hillary Clinton said that Bernie Sanders has been really harsh on President Obama, and I want you to watch Bernie Sanders' face while she's saying this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON: Senator Sanders called him weak, disappointing. He even in 2011 publicly sought someone to run in a Primary against President Obama.

(END VIDEO CLIP) FOREMAN: So did he really do all of this? Is he really that harsh in his attacks on President Obama? In fact, he did use those words. He did not say them directly. He said many Americans feel that way about President Obama. And he did say it might be a good idea if somebody out there were challenging him to push his political agenda more toward the left.

He didn't exactly do it. So she's a little bit off on that. But the simple truth is if you add it all up you have to say that what she said was mostly true. You can find out a whole lot more about all of our reality checks on everything the candidates said. cnn.com/realitycheck. Wolf?

BLITZER: Tom Foreman, thanks very much. David Axelrod, that look on Bernie Sanders' face that was priceless I should say.

AXELROD: Yes. That's what you look like when someone just hit you with a pie. But he knows how damaging that is in a Democratic Primary. And particularly in South Carolina, it's a big real vulnerability for him.

HENDERSON: Yeah, and they're going to keep this up. I mean, the Hillary Clinton campaign was blasting, you know, just stories about Sanders attacking President Obama. So I think this is going to continue.

BLITZER: Jeff, President Obama, among Democrats, still remains very, very popular.

ZELENY: Very, very popular. And the Clinton campaign realizes they have a touch of work to do. There are still long memories there from what happened eight years ago. So some South Carolina voters I talked to this weekend say they are open to supporting Senator Sanders. What she is trying to do is to remind them that she is the sort of inheritor of the Obama legacy, not Bernie Sanders.

BLITZER: Peter Beinart, National Security. Only at the end of the debate that came up. What were the major differences that you heard between these two Democratic candidates?

BEINART: The major difference is that Hillary Clinton is comfortable talking about national security and Bernie Sanders is not. Now, there is a very powerful critique of Hillary Clinton that would be compelling to a lot of liberals because she is significantly more hawkish, not just the fact she supported the Iraq war but even today on her positions on Iran, for instance, than a lot of Democrats are.

But Bernie Sanders, there's a certain rigidity to him. He's great when he's in his lane, which has to do with economics and class. When he's pushed off of that onto national security, he called King Abdullah a hero. If you're a Democratic socialist appealing to progressives, you don't call a monarch a hero. Those are not actually progressive values, and it seems to show to me the fact he's was basically at sea.

BLITZER: He was talking about King Abdullah of Jordan, not King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

BEINART: King Abdullah, that's right.

BLITZER: But go ahead.

CUPP: Well, look, I already mentioned, you know, his idea that we normalize relations with Iran compare it Cuba, which exports cigars, Iran, terrorism to many people. A lot of this that, you know, what he said would not play well in a general, but a lot of what she said as -- even though it was more informed than him will not play well in a general.

Her defense of the Russian reset was a moment that I can imagine being played over and over and over again among the Conservative candidates. Really, sort of suggesting she might try that again because she really respects Vladimir Putin. I mean, this is not good jumping...

AXELROD: I know that in the precincts in which you travel there's a real -- there's a real eagerness to take her on, on these...

CUPPS: Hey, I've got New York values. I'm from New York.

AXELROD: There's an eagerness to take her on, on these issues. I think this was -- any Republican candidate who watches these debates should be put on notice. She is utterly comfortable talking about these things. She has no problem. I'm sure she'd love to join that debate.

And as for Bernie, he just can't wait to get back to banks and billionaires every time the subject comes up. And that's a big problem for him.

[23:55:06] BASH: He doesn't wait. He turns it, no matter what the question, he turns it into climate change or banks or whatever. But I think your point about Republicans is a good thing to remember here. Because let's assume for, you know, just hypothetically, Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee.

CUPPS: OK.

BASH: They are all watching this and ready to pick apart everything she says with a fine-toothed comb, which is to me it's fascinating to watch the Clinton campaign and Hillary Clinton in particular in these debates. She knows that. So she's positioning herself very much to the left on guns, but everything else, not so much.

BLITZER: All right, guys. This has been a fascinating discussion. This is an important debate, was a very important debate going into Iowa, then New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, a lot of political contests coming up. We're going to be over all -- we're going to watching those all the way. That's it for us tonight. Thanks very much for joining us. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Please be sure to join me tomorrow, 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "The Situation Room." In the meantime, the news continues next on CNN.