Washington: In the first debate of the Democratic presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders dismissed concerns about Hillary Clinton's use of a private email account and server while she served as secretary of state, saying Americans were tired of talking about her "damn emails."
As the candidates take the stage for their last match-up of the year, will Clinton, the Democratic Party front-runner in the 2016 presidential campaign, return the favor? The debate airs on ABC at 8 pm Eastern Time Saturday, 19 December.
Nationwide polls show Clinton leading Sanders by a wide double-digit margin in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but surveys show the independent Vermont senator more competitive in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states that will hold nominating contests in February.
Friday's revelations that four members of Sanders' campaign staff improperly accessed voter information compiled by Clinton's campaign shook up what had been a relatively civil race. It is a development that has the potential to transform a sleepy Saturday night debate into something far livelier.
For Clinton, the question was how forcefully to confront the Vermont senator about the matter and whether to defend the reaction of the Democratic National Committee, which cut off Sanders' access to the party's voter database after learning of the breach. Sanders' campaign said its access was restored Saturday morning.
At the center of the dispute is an extensive trove of voter information maintained by the DNC. The campaigns are able to add their own information to that database, information they use to target voters and anticipate what issues might motivate them to cast ballots.
In Clinton's case, campaign manager Robby Mook said the information stored in the database and illicitly reviewed by Sanders' team included "fundamental parts of our strategy." Experts said the Sanders campaign employees who accessed the Clinton voter information without authorization appear to have broken the law.
"Our data was stolen," Mook said. "The data that they reached in and took from our campaign is effectively the strategic road map in those states."
It was an allegation rejected out of hand by Sanders' campaign, which filed a federal lawsuit against the DNC seeking to regain access to the voter records. The lawsuit argued the DNC's actions have caused Sanders' campaign "injury and financial losses."
"It's outrageous to suggest that our campaign 'stole' any data," said Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs. "What is true is the data we collected and need to run a winning campaign is now being stolen from us by a DNC dominated by Clinton people."
Early Saturday, the DNC said Sanders' campaign had complied with its request for information about the incident.
"Based on this information, we are restoring the Sanders campaign's access to the voter file, but will continue to investigate to ensure that the data that was inappropriately accessed has been deleted and is no longer in possession of the Sanders campaign," DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, said in a statement.
Even before the suit, Sanders' campaign was trying for a political edge, sending a fundraising email to supporters that said the DNC had placed "its thumb on the scales in support of Hillary Clinton's campaign."
The email made no mention of the campaign's decision to fire a worker involved in the data breach or the admission from campaign manager Jeff Weaver that the worker's actions were "unacceptable."
The controversy came as Sanders struggled to draw attention to his economically focused campaign message after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, shifted the focus of the 2016 campaign to national security.
"He's got to refocus Democrats onto his issue ground," said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster unaffiliated with either campaign. "It's been usurped by events."
Sanders has tried to cast himself as being above politics as usual. An independent running as a Democrat, Sanders has pledged to avoid personal attacks and dirty tricks.
Clinton aides contended that Sanders' message was undermined by the newly revealed actions of his staff. They said the information that the four Sanders workers reviewed in 25 separate searches included details on voter turnout and candidate preferences, revealing the Clinton campaign's approach in early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
During the debate, Clinton could choose to play down the issue in the way that Sanders did in the first debate with his dismissal of questions about Clinton's email use.
If Clinton did that, she probably would avoid alienating Sanders supporters — the passionate liberal voters she will need to win the general election should she capture the Democratic nomination.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is lagging far behind Clinton and Sanders, will also take part in the third debate of the Democratic campaign.
Updated Date: Dec 19, 2015 22:47:41 IST