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Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate: Who's the Greenest of Them All?

"The American people are sick and tired about hearing about her damn emails," said candidate Bernie Sanders of the controversy dogging Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The candidates sought to outdo one another on energy sustainability — an issue that resonates with the progressive wing of the party — in the first televised debate among Democratic presidential contenders.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton used the platform of CNN’s national audience to recount a story told in her memoir, “Hard Choices,” that took place in 2009 in Copenhagen. As secretary of state, she said, she and President Obama forced themselves into a room where the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was meeting secretly with the Indian Prime Minister to obtain early commitments to combat climate change.

Clinton pledged to continue the work of the Obama administration to work jointly with Beijing and combat climate change in a way that was verifiable.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders aligned himself with Pope Francis, who earlier this summer declared the scientific evidence in support of global warming to be disturbingly real — and called for a revolution to combat climate change. Sanders called climate change a “moral issue,” and noted that he and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., had introduced comprehensive legislation that would impose a fee on carbon emissions and fund renewable energy technologies such as wind, solar and geothermal.

Sanders took the opportunity to attack the Republican presidential hopefuls on the environment issue, saying, “The fossil fuel industries are funding the Republican campaigns. … We have got to be extremely aggressive.”

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, one of the least well-known among the five declared candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, staked out the most aggressive position on renewable energy, calling for a 100 percent clean electric grid by the year 2050.

O’Malley pledged to make it his first act, should he be elected to the White House.

Breaking with progressive orthodoxy, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb said he embraced all forms of energy — including coal and nuclear power as well as alternative energy sources. He even supports the third rail of Democratic politics, the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil extracted from the sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas.

The debate, which took place in the Las Vegas Wynn hotel, touched on wage inequity, unrest in Syria, education and the Black Lives Matter movement. Clinton and Sanders shared the stage with lesser-known hopefuls O’Malley, Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who all did what they could to build awareness with primary voters and energize their campaigns.

CNN’s debate moderator, Anderson Cooper, focused largely on the front-runners, pressing Clinton on an issue that has dogged her campaign for months: Her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. The candidate ultimately apologized.

“I said it was a mistake,” Clinton said. “What I did was allowed by the State Department, but I’ve taken responsibility for it.”

Clinton said the issue has been politicized by the Republicans, who are using Congressional hearings to tarnish her image with voters. As Cooper countered that the matter was more than partisan, noting that the FBI is conducting a probe, Sanders rose to Clinton’s defense.

“The secretary is right,” Sanders said, eliciting rousing applause. “The American people are sick and tired about hearing about her damn emails.”

Clinton’s opponents sought to use the debate stage to challenge her judgment for support of the Iraq war during her tenure in the Senate — a vote she said she revisited some 25 times, in 2008 Democratic primary debates with then-Sen. Obama.

“After the election, he asked me to become secretary of state. He valued my judgment,” Clinton said.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has been drawing sizable crowds to his campaign events, but faces questions about whether the self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist can appeal to voters beyond the Democratic party’s liberal base. He was asked whether he considered himself a capitalist.

“Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalists, where so few have so much, where Wall Street greed and recklessness wreck this economy?” asked Sanders. “No, I don’t.”

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