In their final debate before the Iowa caucuses, the gloves came off between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Shouting over each other at times, the two leading Democratic presidential candidates engaged in some of their toughest exchanges of the campaign on Sunday night, underscoring the narrowing race between them in the first-to-vote states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Clinton sought an advantage over the Vermont senator on curbing gun violence. Sanders, meanwhile, twice assailed the former secretary of state for accepting big money in speaking fees from Wall Street, drawing some boos as he did so.
Healthcare emerged as a major dividing line, placing the future of President Barack Obama’s healthcare law in the spotlight.
Just two hours before the debate, Sanders released a proposal that would create a “Medicare for all” healthcare system funded by higher taxes on middle-class families and the wealthy.
Sanders and Clinton came to the debate stage loaded with stinging attacks for each other – and they were ready to use them.
Questioning her commitment to policing excess on Wall Street, Sanders twice invoked Clinton’s receipt of lucrative speaking fees after leaving her post as secretary of state in early 2013.
“You’ve received $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs in one year,” Sanders said pointedly.
Clinton worked aggressively to associate herself with President Obama, claiming credit for her role in the run-up to the Iran nuclear deal as well as praising the healthcare law.
Turning to national security, both Sanders and Clinton voiced strong support for Obama’s diplomatic overtures to Iran and opposition to sending US ground troops into Syria.
Clinton defended her outreach to Russia early in her term as secretary of state, but hesitated when asked to describe her relationship with Vladimir Putin, whose return to the Russian presidency heralded the worsening of US-Russian relations.
“My relationship with him – it’s interesting,” Clinton said to laughs in the debate hall. “It’s one, I think, of respect.”
But she added it was critical to constantly stand up to Putin, describing him as a bully who “will take as much as he possibly can”.
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