Clinton, Sanders clash on guns, economy, foreign policy

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders clashed over U.S. involvement in the Middle East, gun control and economic policy in the first Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night, vigorously outlining competing visions for a party seeking to keep the White House for a third straight term.

Yet in a moment of political unity — and levity — Sanders leapt to Clinton's defense on the issue of her controversial email practices as secretary of state.

"The American people are sick and tired are hearing about your damn emails," Sanders exclaimed as the crowd in Las Vegas roared with applause. A smiling Clinton reached over to shake his hand and said, "Thank you, Bernie."

See photos from the debate:

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Democratic Debate Oct 13
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Clinton, Sanders clash on guns, economy, foreign policy
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 13: (L-R) Democratic presidential candidates U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley take part in a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Facebook at Wynn Las Vegas on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Five Democratic presidential candidates are participating in the party's first presidential debate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Hillary Rodham Clinton points to a supporter after the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Martin O'Malley, former governor of Maryland, participates in the first Democratic presidential debate at the Wynn Las Vegas resort and casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015. While tonight's first Democratic presidential debate will probably lack the name-calling and sharp jabs of the Republican face-offs, there's still potential for strong disagreements between the party's leading contenders. Photographer: Josh Haner/Pool via Bloomberg
Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speak during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 13: Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee take the stage for a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Facebook at Wynn Las Vegas on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The candidates participated in the party's first presidential debate with Jim Webb and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
** CORRECTS FROM JIM WEBB TO LINCOLN CHAFEE ** Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Democratic presidential candidate former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb listens during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Democratic presidential candidate former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Democratic presidential candidate former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Democratic presidential candidates former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, left, listens as former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, listens as Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton talk before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton waves as she takes the stage before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 13: (L-R) Democratic presidential candidates Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee take the stage for a Democratic presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Facebook at Wynn Las Vegas on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The five candidates are participating in the party's first presidential debate. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidates from left, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee take the stage before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Democratic presidential candidates from left, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee take the stage before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton takes the stage before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Democratic presidential candidates from left, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee take the stage before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. On the far left is moderator Anderson Cooper. (AP Photo/John Locher)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 13: Guests including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (4th R) attend a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Facebook at Wynn Las Vegas on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Five Democratic presidential candidates are participating in the party's first presidential debate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 13: Democratic presidential candidate Lincoln Chafee takes part in a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Facebook at Wynn Las Vegas on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Five Democratic presidential candidates are participating in the party's first presidential debate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton appear on screens in the press room as journalists cover the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 13, 2015. Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton will finally square off with top rival Bernie Sanders in the party's first debate of the 2016 campaign as she seeks to prove she is the candidate to beat. AFP PHOTO/ FREDERIC J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
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While the five candidates onstage took issue with each other, they also repeatedly sounded traditional Democratic themes — such as fighting income inequality — that are sure to carry over to the general election campaign against the Republicans.

First, the Democrats must choose their own candidate. And throughout most of the two-hour debate Clinton played the role of aggressor, an unexpected shift for a candidate who had barely mentioned her Democratic rivals since launching her campaign six months ago. Until now, Clinton and Sanders — who has surprisingly emerged as her toughest competition — have circled each other cautiously and avoided direct attacks.

After Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, derided "a casino capitalist process by which so few have so much," Clinton said it would be a "big mistake" for the U.S. to turn its back on the system that built the American middle class. Asked whether she thought Sanders, who has a mixed record on gun control legislation, had been tough enough on the issue, she said simply," No, I do not."

Bernie Sanders: "Wall Street Regulates Congress"

While Sanders is drawing big crowds on the campaign trail and challenging Clinton's fundraising prowess, he's largely unknown to many Americans. Tuesday's debate offered him a high-profile opportunity to cast himself as an electable alternative to Clinton and appeal for support beyond his liberal base.

Sanders has sought in particular to distinguish himself from Clinton over foreign policy, an issue where she is often more hawkish than others in the Democratic Party. The former secretary of state reiterated her call for more robust U.S. action to stop the Syrian civil war and defended her judgment on international issues, despite having voted for the 2002 invasion of Iraq.

Sanders called the Iraq war "the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of our country" and said he would not support sending American combat troops back to the Middle East to fight terrorism.

"Nobody does, Senator Sanders," Clinton interjected.

Clinton's confident performance was likely to ease anxiety among supporters who have questioned her campaign's handling of the email controversy. One question still to be answered: how her showing will affect Vice President Joe Biden's decision about making a late entry into the Democratic race.

Biden has been deliberating about his political future for months and is expected to announce a decision within days. Debate host CNN kept an extra podium on standby in case he decided to show up, but the vice president instead stayed in Washington, where he was watching the debate at his residence.

Even with the swirling Biden speculation and Clinton's email controversy, the Democratic contest has largely been overshadowed by the Republican primary, where more than a dozen candidates are fighting to overtake billionaire Donald Trump. The real estate mogul still made his presence known Tuesday night, sending a torrent of Twitter commentary on the Democrats' performances.

"Sorry, there is no STAR on the stage tonight!" he wrote.

While the Republican primary has been roiled by the emotional debate over immigration, the Democratic candidates were largely united in their call for providing a path to legal status for the millions of people currently in the U.S. illegally. The party is counting on general election support from Hispanics, a group that overwhelmingly voted for President Barack Obama in 2012.

Joining Clinton and Sanders on stage in Las Vegas was a trio of low-polling candidates looking for a breakthrough moment: former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley; Jim Webb, a former Navy secretary and U.S. senator from Virginia, and Lincoln Chafee, the Republican-turned independent-turned Democrat from Rhode Island.

For Clinton, the debate was a much-needed opportunity to focus on policy in addition to the controversy over her exclusive use of personal email and a private Internet server during her tenure in the Obama administration. The email issue has shadowed her rollout of numerous policy positions and has hurt her standing with voters.

Take a look back at the most recent GOP debate:

31 PHOTOS
GOP Main Debate 9/16/2015
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Clinton, Sanders clash on guns, economy, foreign policy
Republican presidential hopefuls, (L-R) South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, former New York Gov. George Pataki, Sen. Rick Santorum, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, real estate magnate Donald Trump, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former CEO Carly Fiorina, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, arrive on stage for the Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California on September 16, 2015. Republican presidential candidates collectively turned their sights on frontrunner Donald Trump at the party's second debate, taking aim at his lack of political experience and his sometimes abrasive style. AFP PHOTO/ ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidates businessman Donald Trump, left, and Scott Walker, right, both speak as Jeb Bush, listens during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Republican presidential hopefuls (L-R), Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee , Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, real estate magnate Donald Trump, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and former CEO Carly Fiorina, listen as retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (C) speaks during the Presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California on September 16, 2015. Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump stepped into a campaign hornet's nest as his rivals collectively turned their sights on the billionaire in the party's second debate of the 2015. AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
SIMI VALLEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 16: : Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio take part in the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on September 16, 2015 in Simi Valley, California. Fifteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the second set of Republican presidential debates. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SIMI VALLEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 16: Republican presidential candidates Carly Fiorina and John Kasich take part in the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on September 16, 2015 in Simi Valley, California. Fifteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the second set of Republican presidential debates. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SIMI VALLEY, CA-SEPTEMBER. 16: Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul take part in the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on September 16, 2015 in Simi Valley, California. Fifteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the second set of Republican presidential debates. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Republican presidential candidates, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, right, and Donald Trump both speak during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Republican presidential candidate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
SIMI VALLEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 16: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Rick Santorum, George Pataki, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Huckabee, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) , U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Carly Fiorina, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stand onstage during the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on September 16, 2015 in Simi Valley, California. Fifteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the second set of Republican presidential debates. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie responds to a question as questioners Dana Bash, center, and Hugh Hewitt, right, look on during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump reacts during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Carly Fiorina, former chairman and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, speaks during the Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015. After a friendly round of introductions, the second Republican presidential debate quickly plunged into clashes that shifted from policy to the personal, with more politically experienced insiders trying to gain an advantage against the front-runner at center stage: Donald Trump. Photographer: Max Whittaker/Pool via Bloomberg
SIMI VALLEY, CA-SEPTEMBER. 16: Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker take part in the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on September 16, 2015 in Simi Valley, California. Fifteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the second set of Republican presidential debates. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, center, gestures as Donald Trump, left, and Scott Walker look on during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, looks on as Ben Carson speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
SIMI VALLEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 16: Republican presidential candidates Chris Christie (R) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich take part in the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on September 16, 2015 in Simi Valley, California. Fifteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the second set of Republican presidential debates. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SIMI VALLEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 16: Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump (L) and Jeb Bush take part in the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on September 16, 2015 in Simi Valley, California. Fifteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the second set of Republican presidential debates. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush speaks during the Republican Presidential Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, September 16, 2015. Republican presidential candidates collectively turned their sights on frontrunner Donald Trump at the party's second debate, taking aim at his lack of political experience and his sometimes abrasive style. AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, left, speaks as Marco Rubio looks on during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
SIMI VALLEY, CA-SEPTEMBER. 16: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump takes part in the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on September 16, 2015 in Simi Valley, California. Fifteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the second set of Republican presidential debates. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson, left, and Donald Trump talk before the start of the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
2016 Republican presidential candidates Carly Fiorina, former chairman and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co., and Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, walk on stage during the Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015. The main debate of the top 11 GOP contenders in the polls follows the 'kids' table' debate of candidates who didn't make the cut. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Republican presidential hopefuls, (L-R) retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, real estate magnate Donald Trump, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, arrive on stage for the Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California on September 16, 2015. Republican presidential candidates collectively turned their sights on frontrunner Donald Trump at the party's second debate, taking aim at his lack of political experience and his sometimes abrasive style. AFP PHOTO/ ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidates Chris Christie, right, John Kasich, center, and Carly Fiorina enter the stage prior to the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
SIMI VALLEY, CA - SEPTEMBER 16: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with reporters after the presidential debate at the Reagan Library on September 16, 2015 in Simi Valley, California. Fifteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the second of presidential debates(Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
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Clinton said her email use "wasn't the best choice" and cast the issue as a politically motivated effort by Republicans to drive down her poll numbers. She highlighted comments from Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who bragged about how a House committee investigating Clinton's role in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, had hurt her politically.

"I am still standing," she said.

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The only candidate on stage who challenged Clinton on her email practices was Chafee, who said "credibility is an issue."

The former secretary of state has also faced criticism that she's shifted her positions on trade, gay marriage and other issues to match the mood of voters — a charge she denied Tuesday.

"Like most human beings, I do absorb new information, I do look at what's happening in the world," Clinton said. Pressed specifically on her newly announced opposition to a Pacific Rim trade deal she touted while serving in the Obama administration, Clinton said she had hoped to support it but ultimately decided it did not meet her standards.

She was asked how her administration would differ from Obama's.

"Being the first woman president would be quite a change," she said.

Hillary Clinton Is Done Answering Questions About Her Email

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