Democrats spar -- though not face to face -- at Iowa town hall

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, left, speaks with host Chris Cuomo during a CNN town hall at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, left, speaks with host Chris Cuomo during a CNN town hall at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. AP

With polls showing a tightening race, an aggressive Hillary Clinton punched back Monday night against criticism that she’s been late to the game on economic inequality and is failing to engage younger voters -- like her chief rival, Bernie Sanders.

At a town hall a week before Iowans kick off voting in the 2016 presidential race, Clinton was faced with questions about her honesty, her use of a private email server and her role in the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

“People have thrown all kinds of things at me. And you know I can't keep up with it, I just keep going forward,” Clinton said, told by a young voter that some of his peers are not enthusiastic about her candidacy because they believe she’s dishonest. “They come up with these outlandish things. They make these charges. I just keep going forward because there's nothing to it. They throw all this stuff at me and I'm still standing.”

She insisted she’s been under attack “because I've been on the front lines of change and progress since I was your age.”

Clinton and Sanders, as well as Martin O’Malley, appeared at a CNN-sponsored Town Hall at Drake University in Des Moines Monday night, taking to the stage one at a time to comply with rules established by the Democratic National Committee, which capped the number of face-to-face debates at six.

There was no interaction among the three, but that didn’t stop them from engaging in a spirited exchange. After being shown a Clinton television ad that presented Clinton as “the one leader” who could handle the presidency, Sanders jumped to his feet to reply.

“This calls for a standing up response,” he said, arguing that he’s displayed better judgment than Clinton on a number of issues, including beating Clinton to the punch with his opposition to the Iraq war and the Keystone pipeline. O’Malley, who followed him, didn’t take a seat at all, instead taking off his jacket and roaming around the stage to field questions from voters.

His toughest came from moderator Chris Cuomo, who asked the low polling O’Malley who his second choice for president would be. In some Iowa precincts, candidates who don’t win support from at least 15 percent of voters are declared not viable, and their supporters vote for someone else.

“Hold strong at your caucus because America’s looking for a new leader,” O’Malley replied.

The event fell exactly a week before Iowans go to the caucuses, and as polls find Sanders narrowing the gap against Clinton among likely caucus-goers. But Clinton came in on an uptick, earning praise from President Barack Obama and picking up an endorsement from Iowa’s largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register, which wrote over the weekend that “no other candidate can match the depth or breadth of her knowledge and experience.”

Sanders found himself on the defensive as the program opened, asked to explain what he means when he calls himself a socialist and whether his plan to provide health care to all Americans would involve raising taxes.

“We will raise taxes, yes we will,” Sanders said, delivering a response that pundits quickly suggested would find itself in ads. But Sanders insisted that his plan would save most Americans money.

“There's a little bit of disingenuity out there,” Sanders said. “We may raise taxes but we are also going to eliminate private health insurance premiums for individuals and for businesses.”

Sanders also pledged to release his health records before voting in Iowa begins as Cuomo noted that he’d be the oldest person ever elected president.

“You are 75 now,” Cuomo said. “Seventy-four!” Sanders said, correcting him. And, Sanders added, he’s been “blessed with good health and good endurance. And there's nothing in the medical records that is going to surprise anybody.”

And Clinton pressed back against Vice President Joe Biden’s assertion that she’s a recent arrival to the issue of income inequality.

“I have the greatest respect for the vice president,” she said. “But I think it's fair to say that I have a 40-year record of going after inequality.”

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark