Elections

Clinton, Sanders clash over guns, health care in primetime debate

Live: Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton and Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. speak during a break at the NBC, YouTube Democratic presidential debate at the Gaillard Center, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
Live: Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton and Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. speak during a break at the NBC, YouTube Democratic presidential debate at the Gaillard Center, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Mic Smith) AP

Turning up the temperature, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tangled repeatedly in Sunday’s presidential debate over who’s tougher on gun control and Wall Street and who’s got a better vision for the future of healthcare in America. It was the last Democratic matchup before voting begins in two weeks, and both sides were eager to rumble as polls showed the race tightening.

Clinton rapped Sanders, the Vermont senator, for voting repeatedly with the National Rifle Association, and then welcomed his weekend reversal of a position to support legislation that would deny gun manufacturers legal immunity. She rattled off a list of provisions that she said Sanders had supported in line with the NRA: “He voted against the Brady Bill five times. He voted against what we call the Charleston loophole. He voted to let guns go on Amtrak, guns to go into national parks.”

Sanders, in turn, said Clinton’s assertion that he kowtowed to the gun lobby was “very disingenuous” and pointed to his lifetime rating of a D- from the NRA.

The third participant in the debate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, tried persistently to insert himself into the conversation. He focused on his record as Maryland’s governor and accused both Clinton and Sanders of being inconsistent on gun control.

On healthcare, Sanders released his plan for a government-run, single-payer plan just hours before the debate, and used his opening statement to call for healthcare “for every man, woman and child as a right.” Clinton, by contrast, urged less sweeping action to build on President Barack Obama’s healthcare plan by reducing out-of-pocket costs and controlling spending on prescription drugs.

Clinton suggested Sanders’ approach was dangerous — and pie-in-the-sky unrealistic.

“With all due respect, to start over again with a whole new debate is something that would set us back,” Clinton said.

She said that under Obama’s plan, “we finally have a path to universal healthcare. … I don’t want to see us start over again with a contentious debate.” She noted that even with a Democratic Congress, Obama was unable to move to a single-payer system.

Sanders dismissed the idea that he would endanger hard-won victories on healthcare, insisting: “No one is tearing this up; we’re going to go forward.”

When Clinton suggested Sanders’ healthcare plan would impose a heavier tax burden on the middle class, Sanders insisted they’d come out ahead with lower costs overall.

“It’s a Republican criticism,” he said.

The two tangled over financial policy, too, with Sanders suggesting Clinton won’t be tough enough on Wall Street given the big contributions and speaking fees she has accepted from the financial sector. Clinton, in turn, faulted Sanders’ past votes to deregulate financial markets and ease up on federal oversight.

Then, she took a step back to put those differences in a different perspective.

“We’re at least having a vigorous debate about reining in Wall Street,” she declared. “The Republicans want to give them more power.”

Overall, the tone of the debate was considerably more heated than the past three face-offs in the Democratic primary. But it also included moments of levity.

At different points, both Clinton and Sanders prefaced their criticism of one another with the phrase “in all due respect.”

Sanders took note that he was copying Clinton on that verbiage, drawing a chuckle from his rival amid their pointed exchanges.

Then Sanders finished his thought on healthcare, telling Clinton, “In all due respect, you’re missing the main point.”

Clinton, playing to her liberal audience, repeatedly cast herself as the defender of Obama’s most significant accomplishments, including healthcare and Wall Street reforms. She argued that the Democratic Party had been working to pass a health overhaul since President Harry Truman and said Sanders’ tear-it-up approach to Obama’s plan would pull the U.S. in “the wrong direction.”

She cast Sanders’ criticisms of Obama for being too weak in taking on Wall Street as unfair, and declared, “I’m going to defend President Obama for taking on Wall Street” and getting results.

The debate over gun control — an ongoing area of conflict between Clinton and Sanders — took on special import given the setting: The debate took place just blocks from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where nine parishioners were killed during Bible study last summer. Gun control has emerged as a central theme in the race, with Clinton citing the issue as one of the major differences between the candidates.

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