DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) – Friday’s deadly Paris attacks will give a somber focus to the Democratic presidential debate on Saturday, putting front-runner Hillary Clinton and her two rivals on the spot over national security and their plans to fight Islamic State militants.
CBS News, which is hosting the nationally televised two-hour debate, said it planned to press the candidates on how they would confront the evolving threat of terrorism in the aftermath of Friday night’s bomb and gun rampage across Paris claimed by Islamic State, in which at least 127 people died.
The shift in focus will put the spotlight on Clinton, the former secretary of state whose foreign policy experience far outstrips that of rivals Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.
With an eye on a potential November 2016 general election match-up against Republicans, who have criticized President Barack Obama’s response to ISIS militants as too weak, Clinton will try to take a tough line on battling international terrorism without appearing defensive about her years of leading Obama’s foreign policy team.
“We must stand side by side every step of the way with France and our allies around the world to wage and win the struggle against terrorism and violent extremism,” Clinton said in a statement after the attacks.
Republican presidential candidates offered a stern response to the attacks, with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush calling them a war on the West and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson saying Syrian refugees should be barred entry into the United States.
“This is an organized effort to destroy Western civilization. And we need to lead in this regard,” Bush told conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt. “This is the war of our time.”
A foreign policy focus in the debate would constitute a shift of emphasis in a Democratic presidential race that so far has been dominated by domestic economic issues such as income inequality, college affordability and family leave.
The more somber mood might also restrain Sanders and O’Malley, who were expected to be more aggressive in confronting Clinton than they were in last month’s first debate. Since her strong performance in that debate, Clinton has opened a commanding lead over Sanders, her prime challenger, in national and most state polls.
The debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, the state that holds the first nominating contest on Feb. 1, will begin at 9 p.m. EST (0200 GMT).
(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker; Editing by James Dalgleish)