Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton went on the attack repeatedly against Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) at Sunday’s Democratic presidential primary debate in South Carolina, hitting him on guns and health care and casting him as overly hostile to President Obama.
It was the clearest sign yet of how big a threat Clinton and her team see in Sanders, who is rising in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders depicted Clinton as an ally of big banks and he vigorously defended his positions on guns -- which Clinton said was too conservative -- and health care -- which she argued was confusing and threatened Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
There were also clear style contrasts: From the outset, Clinton pitched herself as experienced and prepared to assume the presidency. Sanders described himself as the leader of a political revolution.
The third candidate on the stage in Charleston, S.C., former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, seemed like an afterthought in the debate. Lagging far behind in the polls, he struggled to insert himself into what functioned largely as a one-on-one showdown between the two leading candidates.
Clinton accused Sanders of harshly criticizing Obama as she aligned herself closely with the president.
Disparaging comments from Sanders “don’t just affect me; I can take that,” Clinton said, “but he’s criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street and President Obama has led out country out of the great recession.” She praised Obama for signing the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform bill.
Sanders said he backed Obama in 2008 and 2012, but acknowledged, “we have some differences of opinion.”
Clinton appeared prepared to try to discourage Obama’s supporters from voting for Sanders by ticking off a long list of examples of how Sanders has distanced himself from Obama.
Clinton also forcefully criticized Sanders over his single-payer health-care proposal. She defended the Affordable Care Act and said it would be counterproductive to thrust the country into another contentious debate over health-care policy.
“We finally have a path to universal health-care. We have accomplished so much already,” said Clinton. She later added: “Let’s make it work.”
Sanders said it was “absolutely inaccurate” to describe his plan, the details of which were released hours ahead of the debate, as tearing up the current health-care law, which Sanders said he “helped write.”
The two-hour debate was sponsored by NBC News, YouTube, the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and the South Carolina Democratic Party. As the event began, Sanders and Clinton quickly traded blows over guns, continuing a heated back-and-forth that has dominated the campaign trail in recent weeks.
“I think Secretary Clinton knows that what she says is very disingenuous,” Sanders said in response to Clinton’s charges that he has not advocated for gun control laws forcefully enough.
Clinton said Sanders flipped his position on Saturday by opposing a law he once supported granting immunity to gun companies.
The three Democratic presidential candidates held their latest debate Sunday night amid a tightening and increasingly contentious race between Clinton and Sanders.
With the Feb. 1 caucuses in Iowa nearing, polls show that Clinton’s once-comfortable lead in that state has vanished and Sanders is running neck-and-neck with her. In New Hampshire, which votes second, Sanders appears to have a slight lead.
Under the new dynamic, Clinton headed into the debate facing heavy pressure to regain her footing, with some allies growing nervous about a repeat of 2008, when now-President Obama surged ahead of her. Sanders was also under pressure to offer more specifics on some of his policy proposals, as the self-described democratic socialist has come under heavier scrutiny.
Sunday evening, Sanders released new details about his proposed single-payer health-care plan, which he said will require across-the-board income tax hikes. The plan, which has come under criticism by Clinton, was expected to be a central focus in the debate.
The plan would cost about $1.38 trillion a year, according to the “Medicare for all” document he released. Sanders proposes to pay for his plan through a combination of premiums paid by employers and households, new income tax rates and other changes to the tax code, and savings from current health-care spending he says the plan would achieve.
Clinton and Sanders previewed some of their lines of attack in Sunday morning television news interviews, lobbing criticism at each other on guns, health care and Wall Street banks.
Clinton accused Sanders of flipping on gun control and not advocating forcefully enough for tighter firearms restrictions. She also argued that his single-payer health-care proposal is hazy.
Sanders accused Clinton of being too cozy with Wall Street banks and wealthy donors, criticized her vote for the Iraq War and said she is misrepresenting his health-care plan.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Clinton said Sanders “flip-flopped” on holding gun manufacturers accountable for crimes committed with their weapons. On Saturday, Sanders said he backs legislation that would reverse a law he once supported granting immunity to gun companies.
“Now I hope he will flip-flop on what we call the Charleston loophole and join legislation to close that, because it’s been a key argument of my campaign that we Democrats — in fact, Americans — need to stand up to the gun lobby and pass comprehensive common-sense gun measures that will make America safer,” Clinton said. “And that’s what I intend to do.”
Sanders said on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” that he would “take a look” at the legislation referred to by Clinton, which would give law enforcement more time to conduct criminal background checks on individuals looking to buy guns. He also touted his D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association as evidence that he is a staunch supporter of gun-control laws.
There are also differences between Clinton and Sanders on health care. Clinton is a defender of the Affordable Care Act, while Sanders is calling for a single-payer system.
Clinton said Sanders has not been specific about his health-care proposal. And she said the bills he has introduced in Congress suggest that his plan will give states significant responsibility. Clinton and her allies have argued that such a move could jeopardize insurance coverage in states with Republican governors.
“It’s not a traditional kind of single-payer system, as I understand it. It is a state-based system,” she said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” adding that there are some “very legitimate questions” about what her rival is advocating.
Sanders said on “This Week” that he would release the details of his plan “very shortly.” Hours later, he posted the seven-page document outlining his “Medicare for all” plan and how he intends to pay for it.
Sanders would introduce a 6.2 percent income-based premium paid by employers, as well as a 2.2 percent income-based premium paid by households. He would hike the top marginal tax rate on those making over $10 million from about 40 percent to 52 percent and he would tax capital gains earnings as income.
Those making between $250,000 and $500,000 a year would pay a top marginal rate of 37 percent, up a few percentage points from what they are paying now.
In response to the plan, Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon criticized it without addressing specifics.
“After weeks of denying the legitimacy of the questions Hillary Clinton raised about flaws in the health-care legislation he’s introduced nine times over 20 years, he proposed a new plan two hours before the debate,” he said. “Hillary Clinton knows what it takes, and has what it takes, to protect the gains of the Affordable Care Act and secure quality, affordable health care for all Americans.”
Sanders, who is running as an economic populist committed to curtailing income inequality, said on “Face The Nation” that Clinton has “received significant sums of money from Wall Street,” an attack he has consistently lobbed in the campaign. On the same program, he highlighted Clinton’s vote to authorize the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which he opposed.
“Of course we’re going to release our medical records,” he said on “State of the Union.” “Thank God, I am very healthy. We will get medical records out the same way that Secretary Clinton has gotten her records out. It is not a problem.”
Asked about the matter on the same program, Clinton distanced herself from the dustup. But she didn’t argue that the issue should not be raised.
“I don’t know anything about it, but I have released my medical records,” she said. “And I remember being asked frequently for me to do so. And, so, obviously that’s, you know, something I will leave up to the Sanders campaign.”
John Wagner, Jose DelReal, Philip Rucker, David Weigel, Anne Gearan and Abby Phillip contributed to this report.