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Politics & Government

Paris Attacks Expected To Shape Second Democratic Debate

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Well, as you might expect, the attacks in Paris have quickly become the focus of political leaders in this country. Up to this point, the presidential race had been dominated by domestic issues and the economy. But now candidates from both major political parties are weighing in on national security and the fight against ISIS. Tonight, the Democratic candidates meet for their latest debate and will surely confront these issues. The debate is in Des Moines, Iowa, and NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is there now. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So we assume that the Paris attacks will be the main focus of the debate tonight. What have the Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley - what have they had to say about these events so far?

LIASSON: Well, so far they have issued statements expressing their horror at the attacks, saying their thoughts and prayers were with the victims. They've had a basically sympathetic response. This is very different from the Republican response, which has been critical of the Obama administration for not being tougher on ISIS. Some Republicans said they wanted an end to Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. Others say they want to put boots on the ground in the Middle East to fight ISIS. But with a Democrat in the White House, you can see why Democratic candidates will not be putting much daylight between them and the president.

MARTIN: Well, does this put former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a tough position since she was part of President Obama's national security team?

LIASSON: Well, I think it would in a general election. It would definitely be a challenge for her. But tonight, it's unlikely the Democrats are going to criticize the administration and her for not being more aggressive against ISIS. I think this puts her in a very good position tonight. She is more hawkish than the other two candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley. And in Iowa, Democrats are pretty anti-war. And Sanders has been reminding them that he was against the war in Iraq from the very beginning, much sooner than Hillary Clinton was. But I think these attacks in Paris put people in a more hawkish mood, and they are more worried about national security, even in a liberal foreign policy electorate like Iowa Democrats. She has the most and perhaps the only serious foreign policy resume of anyone on that stage tonight. So she has a chance to showcase her expertise.

MARTIN: Well, what about her main challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders? He seems to be taking a more aggressive stance lately.

LIASSON: Well, he's been going back and forth on whether he's going to attack her on ethics or talk about the emails. He said in the first debate that people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails, which was a signal to most people, including Hillary Clinton, that he was declaring a truce on this issue. But since that debate, he has suggested that maybe the emails are fair game. He's also launched television ads in Iowa and New Hampshire talking about a rigged economy. And the question is will he say explicitly tonight that she's part of the establishment that rigs the economy? You know, it's interesting, he's under tremendous pressure now to go after her. Her lead has solidified since that first debate. She's doing much better in all the early state polls and nationally, so this really is one of his last chances to try to slow down Clinton's momentum.

MARTIN: But it's a little difficult, though, isn't it because his main message is economic? Does he - has he shown any ability or willingness to pivot to these national security issues when the moment seems to call for it, as this one does?

LIASSON: No, he hasn't. And his message is mainly about the economic system - that it's rigged - the political system - that it's rigged. And that's really his wheelhouse. And I really don't see what his avenue would be to go after her on national security, unless he says that because we got involved over there - and she's partly responsible for that - these attacks happened. I don't think he would take that line of attack.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. She joined us from Des Moines, where she's covering tonight's Democratic presidential debate. Mara, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.