Sanders saves Clinton from email questions, but Benghazi testimony looms

Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont,, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton laugh during the CNN Democratic presidential debate, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

At the first Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, front-runner Hillary Clinton avoided tough scrutiny over her email practices as secretary of state, in part thanks to support from rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, but a highly-anticipated congressional hearing next week will likely prove to be more of a challenge.

"Well, I've taken responsibility for it," Clinton said when asked about the email issue by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. "I did say it was a mistake. What I did was allowed by the State Department, but it wasn't the best choice. And I have been as transparent as I know to be."

Clinton attempted to brush off questions about the matter as a partisan attack led by Republicans in Congress, but Cooper pushed back that the FBI is investigating and President Barack Obama recently acknowledged it is a legitimate issue.

"I never said it wasn't legitimate. I said that I have answered all the questions and I will certainly be doing so again before this committee," Clinton responded, referring to her testimony before the House Benghazi Committee on October 22. She said the committee has spent $4.5 million investigating the 2012 attacks on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya that left four dead, even though several other committees have already investigated.

When Cooper asked Sanders for his opinion, the self-proclaimed Democratic socialist replied, "Let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing" about Clinton's emails.

The audience of Democratic loyalists applauded and Clinton shook Sanders' hand.

"Enough of the emails," Sanders added. "Let's talk about the real issues facing America."

Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee tried to revive the issue moments later, saying, "So any time someone is running to be our leader, and a world leader, which the American president is, credibility is an issue out there with the world. And we have repair work to be done. I think we need someone that has the best in ethical standards as our next president."

Asked if she wanted to respond to Chafee, who is polling at less than 1% nationally, Clinton said, "No."

When Cooper questioned former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley about it, O'Malley responded with a comment about how the email issue has defined the race so far only because the Democratic National Committee has not allowed enough debates.

Sanders has received a lot of praise from Democrats for sticking to his strategy of not going negative and criticism from Republicans for letting Clinton off easy.

"She didn't have to handle the email question," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "Bernie got rid of it for her...He basically said, 'Email scandal be gone.'"

O'Connell said he has never seen a candidate dig their opponent out of the mud like that before. With the ongoing FBI investigation and additional emails being released regularly, he doubts Sanders' comments will silence the issue.

"That may work in the Democratic primary, but this is not going away for Hillary Clinton."

Even Republican front-runner Donald Trump had to acknowledge Clinton had a good night, but he also attacked the other candidates.

"Like her or not, Hillary did what she had to do in the debate last night--get through it. Her opponents were very gentle and soft!" he tweeted.

"I think she got lucky in a lot of ways," said John Carroll, professor of mass communication at Boston University. "One is that Anderson Cooper didn't really press her about it...She was lucky that he wasn't more aggressive. She was lucky also that Bernie Sanders turned into her white knight."

"He sort of marginalized the issue and he removed it from his store of ammunition," Carroll said. Questions may remain, but Sanders made it clear he will not be asking them.

"I think he's defused it among committed Democratic primary voters," said Nick Kachiroubas, an associate teaching professor at the School of Public Service at DePaul University.

"That pretty much ended forever any possibility of the Democrats running going after Hillary Clinton on the email issue," said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University. This will make it easier for Clinton to portray the issue as partisan politics.

When Clinton appears before the Republican-led House committee next week, she will face much more hostile and skeptical opponents, though. She will also almost certainly be speaking to a much smaller audience than the record 15.3 million people who tuned in for Tuesday's debate, so it may not have as much impact.

"No Republican on that committee is going to be impressed or satisfied with what Clinton said in the debate last night," Carroll said.

"That's not going to be a great spectacle for her," O'Connell said.

Polls show that Sanders was likely correct that Democratic voters do not want to hear more about Clinton's emails, but Republicans still consider it an important issue and many independents have told pollsters they believe Clinton did something wrong.

Also, a Vocativ analysis of two million tweets posted during the debate showed that "email" and "server" were mentioned over 100,000 times, much more often than other topics.

Sanders' comments appear to have resonated with Democrats, though. During the debate, his campaign sent out a fundraising email bragging that the line "got the biggest applause of the night." The campaign announced Wednesday that it raised over $1.4 million between the start of the debate and 3 a.m.

Clinton's own answer on the email question at the debate failed to impress experts.

"I still think that her response was pretty programmed," Kachiroubas said.

"She handled it the same way she's been handling it," said Stella Rouse, associate professor and director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, who expected Clinton to offer a stronger response.

Carroll observed that Cooper seemed to be pushing the conversation toward the FBI investigation before Sanders shot the subject down. There are still unanswered questions including how secure Clinton's server was, how she decided what emails were private or work-related, and whether all of her work-related messages have been turned over.

"Despite the gallantry of Bernie Sanders, all of those issues are still on the table," he said.

A smaller audience does not diminish the significance of Clinton's Benghazi testimony, and she may need to devise a new strategy to handle the tough questions she will face from Republicans, even if recent news has given new ammunition to her partisanship accusations.

"All the pressure's on Hillary Clinton here," O'Connell said. "It's not on the committee or anyone else...How she navigates it is probably going to determine if she's the next president of the United States."

"She'll probably go in with the same boilerplate she's been using all along," Carroll said, "and then when the heat gets turned up on her, she'll fall back on the gift that keeps on giving, Kevin McCarthy's comments on her poll numbers."

The backlash from House Majority Leader McCarthy's comment on Fox News seemingly taking pride in the way the Benghazi Committee's investigation has damaged Clinton's poll numbers may have been one of the reasons he dropped out of the race for the speakership last week.

Clinton's case against Republicans was also bolstered by Air Force Reserve Major Bradley Podliska, a former investigator for the committee who told CNN its work has been almost exclusively focused on Clinton since her private email server was revealed in March.

Podliska, a conservative Republican who was fired by the committee, said it has become "a partisan investigation" instead of the fact-finding mission that the victims' families deserve. Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy has denied Podliska's claims, saying in a statement that he is committed to providing "the final, definitive accounting" of the attacks.

Carroll said these comments have changed the narrative surrounding the issue and made Clinton's job next week a bit easier.

"With that as a run-up, there's going to be a really different framework for Clinton to operate in than she otherwise might have had to."

"It certainly hasn't been helpful to the committee's standing," O'Connell acknowledged. He said Republicans on the committee need to refocus the conversation on finding justice for four dead Americans.

"Those two things certainly raise a lot of red flags and alarm bells about what the committee is up to and what it is it wants," Schmidt said.

He recommended that Clinton press committee members to explain what they are trying to accomplish, how it will benefit the American people, and what her testimony has to do with it.

"If she's going to win this, she's going to have to go on the offensive," he said. Unless investigators find illegal conduct, Clinton could convince voters this is a political fight between Republicans and Democrats rather than a national security issue.

"There's no leadership in the Republican Party," he said. "It's anarchy, and I think that's to her advantage...Unless they charge her with something, she can just ignore the Republicans."

"I think she would probably welcome a series of sharp partisan-themed exchanges with the Benghazi committee because now in some ways she's got the high road," Carroll said.

However, Clinton needs to be careful to avoid creating a viral moment that Republicans will be able to use against her in the campaign. In testimony before a Senate committee in 2013, Clinton grew frustrated over questions about whether the killings grew out of a protest or a planned terrorist attack.

"The fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they'd they go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make?" Clinton said.

The "What difference at this point does it make" comment has been taken out of context by Republicans to suggest that Clinton did not care that Americans were killed. An ad that ran during Tuesday's debate juxtaposed her words with a photo of the grave of Ambassador Ted Stevens, one of the victims of the attacks.

"Anytime you give public comment, there's a danger of slipping up," Kachiroubas said, but he added, "If anyone can be controlled and scripted, I think Hillary Clinton can do that."

"I think she's very comfortable taking on the criticism," Rouse said, especially if there is no "smoking gun" that truly places responsibility for the Benghazi attacks on Clinton.

The stakes are much higher than they were the last time Clinton testified about the matter, though.

"There's going to be probably even more emotion in the exchanges between her and the committee because of everything that's transpired in the past few weeks," Carroll said. "So she does need to be careful and have some combination of restraint and controlled outrage that she reveals here."

He cautioned that Republicans need to control their outrage as well, though, to avoid turning off independents and moderates.

"There's a thin line between interrogation and bullying and they don't want to cross over that line."

Schmidt said if Clinton is focused on winning the nomination, she does not have to worry as much about coming on too strong. Democratic primary voters likely agree with her that the Benghazi investigation is a partisan exercise and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

"She probably would do better if she sticks with a tough line...I don't think there are very many risks for her for the nomination."

He noted that the Republicans on the committee are among those Clinton proudly labeled her enemies at Tuesday's debate, and "you treat your enemies like enemies."

If Clinton does get the nomination, though, he said she will need to figure out a way to appeal to independents who are less willing to dismiss the email issue. That strategy will depend heavily on who the Republicans nominate.

"If they run someone who is unelectable, all this other stuff doesn't matter."

A strong performance in front of the committee would be only a small victory for Clinton, O'Connell suggested. Democrats may not challenge her on the emails, and given Sanders' fundraising haul Tuesday night that might be a smart move, but Republicans and the media still will.

"It doesn't put anything to rest...For Clinton, the committee is the next hurdle. There's still several more hurdles, with or without the committee," he said.

If the investigations fail to turn up anything significant, though, voters could grow weary of the issue by the time the general election comes around, Kachiroubas said.

"I think people are getting to the point where, you know, why do we keep hearing about this?" Rouse said. If Clinton handles the hearing well, and no major bombshells come out down the line, it could be a turning point for her.

"The public in general really will, I think, tire of this, if they haven't already."

"The Republicans are taking a relatively big risk continuing to dwell on this," Schmidt said. He suggested Clinton needs to dismiss the "Benghazi noise" and focus on building support in early primary states.

"Do what Bill Clinton would do: put your head down, bite your lip, and keep moving forward," Schmidt said.

If Hillary Clinton can convince primary voters that the email issue and the Benghazi investigation are a political sideshow, she does not need to fret over the questions raised by Republicans and reporters.

For now, at least.

"Worry about the general election later," Schmidt said. "And that's a whole different story."

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