Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders clashed Sunday over healthcare and gun control in their final debate before voting begins in the Democratic presidential contest.
The two main contenders were more combative than in their three previous debates as polls show the race tightening just two weeks before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus Feb. 1. Clinton and Sanders are neck and neck in both Iowa and New Hampshire, site of the first primary.
Both candidates, as well as former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley who is down in the polls, also outlined sharp differences with the large Republican field for president, especially front-runner Donald Trump.
Sanders was on the defensive for most of the night, pressed on his plans to raises taxes on the middle class, his last-minute switch on controversial gun legislation and a newly-released health care proposal.
Clinton wasn’t challenged on as many issues. That allowed her to play the the aggressor early, especially on guns and health care, after largely ignoring Sanders for months. She was helped that the first questions were about gun control, race relations and drug addiction, which she has talked about for months on the campaign trail.
In one of the most contentious moments of the debate, the two offered sharply different visions of healthcare. Sanders pushed for a single payer system that would replace the recently enacted Affordable Care Act based on private insurance. Clinton urged building on the existing system.
Clinton accused Sanders of wanting to rip apart the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement, for the government-run plan that some have estimated to cost $15 trillion
“I don’t want to see the Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act, and I don’t want to see us start over again with a contentious debate,” Clinton said.
“No one is tearing this up. We’re going to go forward,” Sanders said. “We’re not going to tear up the Affordable Care Act. I helped write it.”
Hours before the debate, Sanders released a plan to raise income taxes across the board, substantially more on high earners, to pay for a a universal health care plan that includes an expansion of Medicare. He said the plan would ultimately save most families thousands of dollars a year on out-of-pocket health-care costs.
The two front-runners clashed over gun control with Clinton accusing Sanders of voting with the NRA and the gun lobby “numerous times” and saying that she was pleased that he had “reversed his position” on a 2005 vote to shield gun makers from lawsuits.
“He voted to let guns go onto Amtrak, guns go into national parks,” she said. “He voted against doing research to figure out how we can save lives.”
Sanders, who a day earlier announced that he’d now support a bill to strip legal immunity from gun manufacturers, called Clinton “very disingenuous” for suggesting that he was weak on gun control. He countered that he had a D-minus rating from the NRA, despite hailing from a state that does not embrace gun control.
He dismissed Clinton’s suggestion he had flipped on the issue, saying he had not wanted smaller “mom and pop” gun shops to be held liable, but was now willing to back stronger provisions.
The senator earlier Sunday visited the nearby Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where a gunman in June killed nine African-American worshipers.
In South Carolina, the first state where the black vote will dominate the Democratic primary, Sanders was pressed on his lack of support among minority voters. In 2008, African-Americans made up 55 percent of the Democratic primary vote in South Carolina and whites made up 43 percent, according to exit polls.
Indeed, Clinton owes her lead in the state – the first state where she does have a clear edge – largely to a big lead there among African-Americans. She led among African-Americans by 78-19 in a CBS News survey last month.
But Sanders argued that as the African American community becomes familiar with his record and agenda his numbers will increase as they have overall.
“As Secretary Clinton well knows, when this campaign began she was 50 points ahead of me. We were all of three percentage points,” he said. “Guess what? In Iowa, New Hampshire, the race is very, very close.”
Sanders called for taking a “very hard look” at the justice system and “investing in jobs and education, not in jails and incarceration.”
Clinton called for a “concerted effort” to address what she called the “systemic racism in our criminal justice system,” including retraining police officers and looking at ways to end racial profiling.\
In response to a question, Clinton said her husband might serve as an adviser in her White House. She suggested he’d be a “good will emissary to go around the country and find the best ideas we’ve got.”
Sanders said that although he believes the former president’s sexual indiscretions while in office were “deplorable” -- they shouldn’t be a subject of debate. “I’m going to focus on issues facing the American people, not Bill Clinton’s personal issues,” Sanders said.
Bernie Sanders: “I think Secretary Clinton knows what she says is very disingenuous.”
Hillary Clinton: “I will go anywhere, to meet with anyone, at any time to find common ground.”
Martin O’Malley: “I’ve never met a self respecting deer hunter that needed an AR-15 to down a deer.”