Hillary Clinton talks past Sanders, O'Malley at MSNBC Democratic forum

Who Would Clinton Pick from GOP as VP?
Who Would Clinton Pick from GOP as VP?

Ignoring her two Democratic rivals, Hillary Clinton told a South Carolina audience Friday night she would work to halt the spate of African-American deaths at the hands of police officers, expressed skepticism about the death penalty and relayed that she would be no more hawkish a commander-in-chief than President Barack Obama.

Clinton's performance during a Democratic presidential forum at Winthrop University broadcast on MSNBC continued her direct appeal to primary voters as she looks for an emphatic victory over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.

SEE MORE: With attacks on Clinton, Democratic race enters new phase

While O'Malley and Sanders took opportunities to make contrasts with Clinton, the former secretary of state declined to return the volley.

Under tough questioning from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, Clinton denied being too close to Wall Street, signaling her support for congressional legislation that would restrict the revolving door between top industries and lawmaking.

"I don't think people should be leaving Congress or an administration and immediately going into industries that have a lot of business before the federal government," she said.

See Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail::

She told Maddow she would not be disappointed if the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty, but asserted she wanted to keep it as a rare option to punish crimes of terrorism.

"There are some really heinous crimes that are, in my view, still arguably ones that should potentially have the death penalty," she said.

She spoke most passionately on the rash of violence against black Americans by figures of authority and appeared to be moved by a recent meeting she had with the family members of victims.

"The Walter Scott shooting. Why? It makes no sense," Clinton said, referring to the North Charleston, South Carolina, shooting by a police officer. "I still can't get over that Eric Garner died in New York. Did he deserve to die because of that? Absolutely not."

On foreign policy, when pressed about the perception of her as an interventionist abroad who is inclined to use force, Clinton demurred: "I think it's irresponsible to rule out force. I will not do that. But it should always be the last resort, not the first choice."

Clinton, Sanders and O'Malley each spoke with Maddow for about 30 minutes before a live audience of about 3,000 in Rock Hill, South Carolina. While no candidate made a glaring error and Sanders and O'Malley turned in solid showings, it was clear that Clinton was in control of the race.

Sanders, running second to Clinton, complained that she had "misstated" his gun control stance, but also stood by a vote to allow passengers to transport firearms on Amtrak.

"You can put unloaded guns into the baggage department of a plane," he explained. "You've got hunters who are going from Vermont to the Midwest. What I voted on for trains is the same that exists in airplanes."

He also mentioned a difference of emphasis with Clinton on how to most effectively eliminate big money in politics. Both Sanders and Clinton support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, but while Clinton has blessed a super PAC to support her White House bid, Sanders has not.

"I don't think it's good enough to talk the talk on campaign finance reform. You've got to walk the walk," he said.

Sanders' weakest answer came during questioning on what he would do to stop the march of the Islamic State group. He said Muslim countries would need to "roll up their sleeves and get troops on the ground," opposing any American force presence in the Middle East.

O'Malley was most eager to draw a contrast with Clinton. When Maddow mentioned that each candidate opposed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, the former governor interjected, "Yeah, but Secretary Clinton got there just last week. And I was against it a year ago."

He later followed with a direct distinction with Sanders about their Democratic Party bona fides.

"When President Obama was running for re-election, I was glad to step up and work very hard for him while Sen. Sanders was trying to find someone to primary him," he charged.

But neither Sanders nor O'Malley felt comfortable with launching a full-bore assault on Clinton, even as they face increasing pressure to change the trajectory of a race currently in her favor.

"Media drives me nuts," complained Sanders at one point. "I can't walk down a hallway in the nation's capital without people begging me to beat up on Hillary Clinton. 'Attack Hillary Clinton. Tell me why she's the worst person in the world.' And I resist it and I resist it and I resist it."

That's fine by Clinton. In fact, she acted almost if neither men were there.

There was just one question she declined to answer outright, albeit a hypothetical one.

Pressed by Maddow to pick a Republican presidential opponent whom she could stomach as a running mate in the event of a national crisis, Clinton refused.

"There are Republicans I could pick, just none of them," she said. "The fact is I am dodging the question."

More from U.S. News & World Report:
The Battle to Digitize Health Care
Is China Cooking the Books on Economic Expansion?
7 Smart Spending Habits to Adopt for the Holidays