Democratic presidential candidates clashed in their final debate before first votes are cast in Iowa, with Hillary Clinton saying she’s ready to take on the “world’s hardest job” as she sparred with her surging rival Bernie Sanders.
The pair, along with former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, met in Charleston, South Carolina, late Sunday aware that their performance could be the best opportunity to reshape the Democratic nomination race ahead of the Iowa caucuses, which will be held two weeks from Monday.
Clinton is ahead in national opinion polls among Democrats, but Sanders has surged in recent weeks and threatens her narrow lead in Iowa.
Clinton wrangled with the leftist Vermont senator, sometimes intensely, over plans for universal health care, guns, battling Islamic State jihadists and reining in Wall Street.
She emphasized her vast experience as former secretary of state, senator and point-woman for her husband ex-president Bill Clinton’s efforts to reform health care in the 1990s.
“I understand that this is the hardest job in the world. I’m prepared and ready to take it on,” she said.
She also insisted that she was best qualified to “bring our country together” during politically polarizing times.
Sanders shook up the issue of health care when just hours before the debate started he unveiled a universal health care proposal he says can save American families thousands of dollars each year by no longer paying insurance premiums.
But the plan would require a 6.2 percent health care payroll tax on businesses, while slapping taxpayers with a 2.2 percent “premium” based on income.
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, claims his plan would save $6 trillion over 10 years compared with the current system.
Clinton criticized his plan claiming it would shred President Barack Obam Affordable Care Act, which has helped 19 million new people get health insurance.
“To tear it up and start over again… I think is the wrong direction,” Clinton said at the debate broadcast by NBC News.
Perhaps her sharpest attack against Sanders was her claim that he is weak on gun control.
“He has voted with the NRA (National Rifle Association), with the gun lobby numerous times,” including against legislation mandating background checks for gun sales. she declared.
And Clinton wryly congratulated Sanders for flip-flopping on a proposal she has advanced to end gun makers’ immunity from lawsuits. In 2005 Sanders voted for legislation that gave gun manufacturers legal immunity.
“This should not be a political issue,” Sanders said, noting the tragedy that befell Charleston when a “crazed person” shot nine African Americans in a church last year.
“What we should be doing is working together.”
– A ‘rigged’ economy –
O’Malley has made little headway with voters despite considerable debate stage time. He squeezed into the conversation Sunday, indicting the Clinton political juggernaut by stressing that it was time for voters to “let go of the past and move forward.”
However, it is Sanders and his “political revolution” that has jostled team Clinton.
Sanders accused the former first lady of cozying up to billionaires, and claimed that she would not be tough enough on Wall Street banks.
“We have an economy that’s rigged,” Sanders said.
“I don’t take money from big banks. I don’t get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs,” he said, noting that Clinton has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars for addressing the bank.
Establishment Democrats are wary of a repeat of 2008, when Clinton was ahead in the polls but lost in Iowa to then less-known senator Barack Obama, who eventually won the nomination and the White House.
Clinton is again the presumptive favorite. But last year’s scandal about her private email use while she was secretary of state has battered her favorability ratings, which are below Sanders’s.
She however received a hearty round of applause when she grew animated in her final remarks and said she was “outraged” by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which has sickened scores of residents.
The tap water in Flint is tainted with lead and pollutants, the result of cost-cutting measures imposed by the state’s Republican governor.
Filmmaker Michael Moore, a Flint native, thanked Clinton profusely on Twitter, noting that she was the only candidate in the debate to mention the Flint crisis.
— Republican reaction —
The Republican National Committee blasted the Democrats for failing to focus enough on foreign issues.
“At a time when concerns over terrorism are at their highest point in years, all three candidates omitted any mention of national security or foreign policy from their top three priorities,” read the RNC statement.
“Democrats doubled down on the extreme and failed policies of the current administration.”
Republican frontrunner Donald Trump had no immediate reaction, but in a sign of how personal the race has become, his rival Ted Cruz posted a short video of old interviews in which Trump praised Clinton.
“As the #DemDebate begins, Republicans have to wonder which team @realDonaldTrump would play for,” read the Twitter message, which included the video link.