CLEAR LAKE, Iowa » Hillary Rodham Clinton offered a fierce defense of her handling of the 2012 Benghazi attacks and her use of a private email server as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, dismissing the controversies as "partisan games" in a speech before influential Iowa Democrats on Friday.
"They’ll try to tell you it’s about Benghazi, but it’s not," Clinton said, pointing to Republican-led congressional inquiries that she said had "debunked all the conspiracy theories."
"It’s not about emails or servers either. It’s about politics," she said.
"I won’t get down in the mud with them. I won’t play politics with national security," Clinton said at the annual Wing Ding, a Democratic fundraiser in northern Iowa that attracted three other presidential candidates.
Clinton, who at one point quelled a coughing fit with a drink of water, sought to take on twin controversies that have buffeted her presidential campaign while presenting herself as combative, tough Democrat prepared to fight Republicans in the race to succeed Obama. Her appearance came days after she agreed to turn over to the FBI the private server she used as secretary of state. Republicans assert she was negligent in handling the nation’s secrets.
At the fundraiser, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has gained steam as a more liberal alternative to Clinton, received loud cheers when he pointed to his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been reviled by environmentalists, and his vote against the Iraq War in the Senate.
Sanders, whose recent appearance at a Seattle event was disrupted by activists with the Black Lives Matter movement, also took steps to emphasize his civil rights record.
"No one will fight harder to end racism in America," he said.
But the night was marked by Clinton’s forceful defense. She began by noting that the Supreme Court case Citizens United, which led to a flood of campaign money, started with a "hit-job film" about her. "Now I’m in their crosshairs," she said of Republicans.
Turning to her email controversies, Clinton said she would "do my part to provide transparency to Americans — that’s why I’m insisting 55,000 pages of my emails be published as soon as possible" and turned over the server.
"I won’t pretend that this is anything other than what it is: the same old partisan games we’ve seen so many times before," she said. "So I don’t care how many super PACs and Republicans pile on. I’ve been fighting for families and underdogs my entire life and I’m not going to stop now."
Clinton also offered a light take on the email probe when she talked about launching a Snapchat social media account. "I love it," she said. "Those messages disappear all by themselves."
Her speech included sharp critiques of potential Republican rivals Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. But she saved her most pointed barbs for Donald Trump, saying the attention in the GOP race had centered on a "certain flamboyant front-runner." The country, she said, shouldn’t be distracted. "Most of the other candidates are just Trump with the pizazz or the hair."
Activists like Lisa Brighton of Mason City, Iowa, welcomed Clinton’s defense. Brighton said her "whole body felt on fire" while listening to Clinton defend herself. "She comforted us," Brighton said.
The candidates spoke before about 2,000 Democrats at the Surf Ballroom, the site of the last concert by rock pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper before their fatal 1959 plane crash, later dubbed "The Day the Music Died."
Clinton and Sanders spoke first, prompting some activists to file out of the ballroom before former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and ex-Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee took the stage.
O’Malley pointed to a laundry list of progressive proposals he would pursue if elected president, saying his years as Baltimore mayor and Maryland’s two-term governor were about "action, not words."
"In tougher times than these, Franklin Roosevelt told us not to be afraid. In changing times, John Kennedy told us to govern is to choose," O’Malley said. "I say to you, progress is a choice."
Chafee took aim at Bush’s recent critique of Obama’s handling of Iraq, telling activists, "What kind of neocon Kool-Aid is this man drinking?"
Clinton kicked off a weekend of campaigning in Dubuque on Friday by outlining proposals for more quality child care on college campuses and additional scholarships to help students who are parents. The Democratic front-runner also picked up two endorsements aimed at reinforcing her standing among liberals: former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a party luminary who served three decades in the Senate, and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, a union of nearly 600,000 members. Clinton was joining Harkin at the Iowa State Fair on Saturday morning.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer reported from Dubuque, Iowa.