MANCHESTER, N.H., Dec 19 (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton backed elements of President Barack Obama's strategy to fight Islamic State militants in a debate on Saturday in which she clashed with top rival Bernie Sanders over national security and the economy.
Clinton came under fire from Republicans even before the debate was over for optimistically saying "we now finally are where we need to be" in Syria, and was criticized by Sanders for being too quick to push for regime change.
The debate was the Democrats' first since the deadly Dec. 2 attack by a pair of radicalized Muslims in San Bernardino, California, which along with the November attacks in Paris elevated national security to the top of the campaign agenda.
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Republicans have criticized Obama's handling of Islamic State and have sought to link the former secretary of state to what they say is a failed strategy.
Obama has relied heavily on U.S. air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq, and ordered the deployment of dozens of special operations troops to northern Syria to advise opposition forces in their fight against Islamic State. In Iraq, about 3,500 U.S. troops are advising and assisting Iraqi forces.
Clinton agrees with Obama on the need to use special forces and trainers but, like the president, she has said a large deployment of U.S. ground forces in the Middle East would be counterproductive.
"We now finally are where we need to be. We have a strategy and a commitment to go after ISIS," she said, noting a U.N. Security Council resolution had brought "the world together to go after a political transition in Syria."
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Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush quickly responded to Clinton on Twitter. "No, Hillary Clinton, we are not 'where we need to be' in fight against ISIS."
Sanders also attacked Clinton for what he described as her support for regime change in Syria, saying the United States should prioritize the fight against Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, over working to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
"Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be," said Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont. "Yes, we could get rid of Assad tomorrow, but that would create another political vacuum that would benefit ISIS."
Clinton countered that Washington could pursue both goals in tandem.
"We will not get the support on the ground in Syria to dislodge ISIS if the fighters there - who are not associated with ISIS, but whose principal goal is getting rid of Assad - don't believe there is a political diplomatic channel that is ongoing. We now have that," she said.
DYNAMIC OF RACE UNCHANGED
With just six weeks left until Iowa kicks off the Democratic nominating contest on Feb. 1, the debate appeared to do little to change the trajectory of the 2016 Democratic presidential race for the White House.
Clinton holds a big lead in national polls over Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, who are both still searching for breakthrough moments that could shift the dynamic.
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In a two-hour debate that largely focused on foreign policy, Clinton also defended her advocacy in 2011 for ousting Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, a position which Republican presidential candidates have criticized.
%shareLinks-quote="I am not giving up on Libya and no one should." type="quote" author="Hillary Clinton" authordesc="" isquoteoftheday="false"%
She also went on the offensive against Sanders, accusing him of hypocrisy for supporting regime change in Libya when he had voted in the Senate for a non-binding resolution that called on Gaddafi to resign and support a peaceful transition to democracy.
Clinton also defended her support for a no-fly zone in Syria, which she said would create safe areas to protect people on the ground from Assad's forces and Islamic State.
But when pressed by the debate moderators, she would not say if that meant she would be willing to shoot down Russian planes, saying "I do not think it would come to that. We are already de-conflicting air space."
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Clinton zeroed in on Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, at one point accusing him of helping Islamic State militants recruit new members with his vow to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
The Democratic contenders clashed over gun control, with O'Malley criticizing both Sanders and Clinton for shifting their stances to be more aggressive in seeking new restrictions in the wake of a recent string of mass shootings.
"ISIL videos, ISIL training videos are telling lone wolves the easiest way to buy a combat assault weapon in America is at a gun show," said O'Malley, who accused his rivals of "flip-flopping" on the issue.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, Martin," Sanders said.
"Let's tell the truth, Martin," Clinton chimed in.
Clinton also vowed not to raise taxes on middle-class Americans if elected next November, questioning the affordability of some of Sanders' proposals such as creation of a single-payer healthcare system and tuition-free college.
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