The dynamic between the two contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination was far more intense — and far more personal — than it has been in their previous faceoffs.
DURHAM, N.H. — In their first one-on-one debate, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders squared off fiercely Thursday night on the question of whether the party should strive toward its liberal aspirations or set its sights on the achievable.
The dynamic between the two contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, in their last debate before the New Hampshire primary, was far more intense — and far more personal — than it has been in their previous faceoffs. That reflected how close their race has become in the wake of a virtual tie in Monday’s Iowa caucuses. The debate was sponsored by MSNBC and the New Hampshire Union Leader.
Clinton used her opening statement to needle the senator from Vermont, who describes himself as a democratic socialist, over what she has contended are unrealistically liberal plans for universal health care, free college and other programs.
“I’m fighting for people who cannot wait for those changes, and I’m not making promises that I cannot keep,” the former secretary of state said.
Sanders replied that a number of European countries had approved single-payer health-care systems. “I do not accept the belief that the United States of America cannot do that,” he said.
As they had at a town-hall forum the night before, the two remaining Democratic presidential contenders also squabbled over the modern definition of the word “progressive,” which has become the preferred term for the Democratic left.
“A progressive is someone who makes progress,” Clinton said.
She derided Sanders as the “self-proclaimed gatekeeper for progressivism.” Rebutting Sanders’ claim that she is a political moderate, Clinton sought to align herself with some of the most popular names in Democratic politics to suggest that Sanders was impugning them, not just her, with what she described as a purity test.
“The root of that word, progressive, is progress, but I’ve heard Sen. Sanders’ comments and it’s really caused me to wonder who’s left in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party,” Clinton said. “Under his definition, President Obama is not progressive because he took donations from Wall Street. Vice President Biden is not progressive because he supported Keystone,” the energy-pipeline project.
“Sen. Sanders and I share some very big progressive goals,” Clinton said. But after she noted that they both supported universal health care, she assailed Sanders’ proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act with a Medicare-for-all single-payer health plan. “I don’t want to rip away the security that people finally have — 18 million people have health care,” she said.
“The idea that I would dismantle health care in America while we’re waiting to pass a Medicare-for-all is just not accurate,” Sanders replied sharply.
Sanders, asked if Obama was a progressive, at first did not answer the question, instead bringing up a comment by Clinton when she called herself a moderate. But he ultimately took on the question.
“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” Sanders said. “I disagree with him on a number of issues, including the trade agreement, but, yes, I think he has done an excellent job.”
Sanders, who enjoys enormous enthusiasm among the party’s liberal base, continued to make the argument that Clinton is too heavily dependent on those who have financed her campaign and made her personally wealthy. He said he does “not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. I am very proud to be the only candidate up here that does not have a super PAC.”
Clinton accused Sanders of engaging in a “very artful smear” of her character. She insisted she had never changed her position on any issue based on having received contributions from special interests.
“Senator Sanders has said he wants to run a positive campaign. I’ve tried to keep my disagreements over issues, as it should be. But time and time again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth,” Clinton said.
Defending the paid speeches she gave between leaving the State Department and announcing her presidential campaign, Clinton said she may not have done a good job of explaining what she was doing.
“They wanted me to talk about the world” and how she saw threats and challenges, Clinton said of the groups that paid her fees of $200,000 and more.
Asked whether she would release transcripts of closed-door, paid speeches, Clinton replied, “I will look into it.”
The two contenders, voices raised, argued over whose plan and ideas would more effectively police Wall Street and the larger financial system.
“Break them up!” Sanders thundered, referring to the nation’s biggest banks.
Clinton said leading economists have judged her regulation proposals to be tougher.
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But Sanders kept bringing the argument back to her ties to Wall Street. Through the end of December, the financial industry had given at least $21.4 million to support Clinton’s 2016 presidential run, more than 10 percent of the $157.8 million amassed to back her bid, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission filings by The Washington Post.
Clinton also was asked whether she could guarantee that repercussions from her use of a private email system at the State Department would not “blow up” her campaign. She said she is “100 percent confident” that an FBI security review will come to naught.
“I have absolutely no concerns about it,” she said.
The two also clashed over foreign policy. Clinton suggested the senator was naive for wanting to insert Iranian troops into Syria and suggested he would be too hasty to normalize relations with the government of Iran.
“You are voting for both a president and a commander in chief,” she said, speaking to voters.
Sanders responded by invoking her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war to question her judgment and recalled that, in the 2008 Democratic primary, she had called Obama naive “because he thought it was a good idea to talk to our enemies.”
The Clinton team is expecting a loss in New Hampshire, the state that resurrected her 2008 campaign after a devastating third-place finish in Iowa. This time, she battled to the narrowest of wins in the Iowa caucuses.
On Thursday, two new New Hampshire polls indicated she has much ground to make up against Sanders before Tuesday’s primary. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal-Marist College survey had Clinton running 20 points behind Sanders in New Hampshire, 58 percent to 38 percent. A tracking poll by CNN-WMUR — the kind of daily gauge whose results are more volatile — showed an even wider margin, with Sanders beating Clinton 61 percent to 30 percent.
On Thursday, Clinton played up what she sees as her greater electability in a general-election contest in November.
“I’ve been vetted. There’s hardly anything you don’t know about me,” an asset in the “withering” scrutiny of the general election, Clinton said.
Sanders brushed aside a question about his electability. He cited polls that suggest he would run stronger than Clinton against GOP front-runner Donald Trump in a number of battleground states.
He also cited the enthusiasm that he is generating: “Democrats win when there is a large voter turnout, when people are excited, when working-class people, middle-class people, young people are engaged in the political process.”
Clinton’s retort: “I am the strongest candidate to take it to the Republicans and win in November.”
She repeatedly tried to frame Sanders as a politician who has had ambitious ideas for decades but little to show for it. “The numbers just don’t add up from what Senator Sanders is proposing,” Clinton said.
Sanders dismissed the idea that his long record in Congress showed he was unable to enact major changes. “Well, I haven’t quite run for president before,” he said.
The rivals ended their debate on a note of solidarity. Clinton said Sanders would be the first person she would consult if she won the nomination. Sanders added: “On our worst days, I think it’s fair to say, we are 100 times better than any Republican candidate for president.”
For the candidates and their campaign advisers, Thursday’s debate was the most consequential so far, given its potential influence on undecided primary voters who are now highly engaged in the race.
Shortly before the debate, the Clinton campaign released unofficial fundraising figures for January showing she brought in $15 million, which is $5 million less than Sanders received in the same period. Clinton’s team has been warning supporters of a Sanders donation surge and noting that he is already outspending her in television advertising in the early-voting states.
The Clinton campaign also confirmed that she will break from campaigning in New Hampshire on Sunday to visit Flint, Mich., where a cost-saving decision led to dangerous levels of lead in the city water.
The debate was moderated by Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd, of MSNBC.