Clinton, Sanders share Iowa stage, strike different notes

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a CNN town hall at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a CNN town hall at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. The Associated Press

The Democratic presidential frontrunners, knotted atop the polls a week before the first vote, replayed their distinct and differing campaign pitches Monday night.

The contrast defines the early race — Hillary Clinton as experienced pragmatist, Bernie Sanders as earnest rebel.

At the CNN “town hall” meeting at Drake University, the former secretary of state, senator from New York and first lady touted her resume. It makes her, she said, the realistic change agent and defender of Obama administration successes.

“The stakes in the election are really high,” she said. “We’ve got to do everything we can not to let the Republicans rip away the progress and take us backwards.”

The first question put to her noted a lack of enthusiasm for her campaign and suspicions about her honesty.

“People have thrown all kinds of things at me. … They fall by the wayside. … I’m still standing,” she said. “I’ve been fighting on the front lines of change. … I’ve taken on the status quo.”

Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont seeking a party’s highest endorsement, pounded his familiar themes of social justice and income equality. He conceded his ambitious welfare proposals — notably free tuition at public colleges and “Medicare for all” — would mean tax hikes. But he said those would either be paid by Wall Street or offset by the elimination of insurance premiums.

And he defended what he said it means to be a Democratic socialist.

“Democratic socialism means to me that economic rights, the right to economic security, should exist in the United States of America,” Sanders said. “It means there’s something wrong when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. … We cannot continue to have a government dominated by the billionaire class.”

At the last shared appearance before the Feb. 1 caucuses, Sanders and Clinton clashed on issues they’ve quibbled over for months. Is he as tough on guns as she is? Will her vast foreign policy experience overcome for Democrats her vote in support of the Iraq war, which Sanders voted against? Does his push for universal health coverage threaten Obamacare or improve it?

Nothing they said settled those questions.

Martin O’Malley, meantime, did his best to be remembered despite sitting far behind in polls. The former Maryland governor said he won’t have the polarizing effect of Sanders’ liberalism or Clinton’s years of accumulated political baggage. CNN host Chris Cuomo asked whether his backers should lean toward Sanders or Clinton if they lack caucus muscle. O’Malley rejected the premise.

“They should hold strong,” he said. “We need a candidate who can actually pull us together.”