Clinton and Sanders Meet for High-Stakes Democratic Debate

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Washington: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders began the fourth Democratic debate swinging at each other on gun control, healthcare and their ability to defeat a Republican in a general election, rehashing disputes that have flared up in recent weeks.

With the first contests of the Democratic primary drawing near and the race tightening, the battle lines were firmly drawn as Clinton, Sanders and Martin O’Malley met on a stage in Charleston on Sunday night.

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In the first minutes of the debate—which took place just a short walk from the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, where nine African-Americans were shot and killed in June—Clinton ticked off a list of votes that Sanders has taken that she says reflect his alignment with the gun lobby in Washington, D.C. “He has voted with the NRA numerous times,” Clinton said, targeting her opponent. “He voted against the Brady Bill five times. He voted for what we call the Charleston loophole. He voted for immunity for gun manufacturers.”

And Clinton ribbed Sanders for changing his views on immunity for gun manufacturers. “I am pleased to hear that Sen. Sanders has reversed his position on immunity,” she said.

Sanders struck back, calling Clinton’s attacks unfair, and touted his own record. “I think that what Secretary Clinton says is very disingenuous,” Sanders said. “I have a D-minus rating from the NRA. I stood up to the gun lobby and came out and maintained the position that in this country we should not be selling military-style assault weapons. I have supported from day one instant background checks.”

“This should not be political issue: what we should be doing is working together,” Sanders said.

The candidates’ discussion of healthcare also turned heated, as Clinton criticized Sanders’ plans for being scattershot and undermining the Affordable Care Act or “start over again” with a contentious debate. “When you’re taking about healthcare, the details really matter. We have been raising questions over what the impact would be,” she said.

The three candidates have sparred in past debates, but with the temperature rising and candidates launching full-frontal attacks against each other regularly on the campaign trail, Sunday night’s contest had a sharper tone.

The stakes are high: this debate is the last before the Iowa caucuses, where Sanders and Clinton are locked in a near-even battle to win the first contest in the Democratic primary. The impression Clinton and her insurgent challenger, Sanders, make on Sunday could presage their performance on Feb. 1; the debate is the candidates’ final chance to reach a national audience before voting begins.

In recent weeks, gun control and healthcare have become the sharpest points of contention between frontrunners Clinton and Sanders.

Clinton said Sanders’ single-payer healthcare proposal would likely require a tax hike on the middle class, saying in an interview this week with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that Sanders’ single-payer plan would “dismantle healthcare as we know it.”

Sanders, for his part, has said Clinton would not be tough enough regulating Wall Street banks and said he would be more likely to win against a Republican in a general election in November.

“In terms of bringing young people and working class people into the political process, an objective assessment will suggest that our campaign has a lot more momentum and a lot more energy than secretary Clinton’s campaign.”