Dem candidates’ attacks intensify ahead of Iowa caucus

There was more friendliness than fireworks the first few times Democratic candidates for president shared the same debate stage. That changed Sunday when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders fought bitterly over some of the party’s hallmark policies: health care, bank regulation and gun control.

The escalating fight comes as polls show a tightening race between the two in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. And both tried to make the most of their last nationally televised debate before Iowa voters head to the polls in two weeks.

From a stage just a stone’s throw from the Charleston, S.C., church where nine black worshippers were gunned down, Clinton blasted Sanders for a vote that protected gun manufacturers from lawsuits when their weapons were used in a crime. Sanders urged Democrats to look at an overall record on restricting gun rights that he said made him no friends at the National Rifle Association.

“He has voted with the gun lobby numerous times,” Clinton said of Sanders, dismissing his assertion Saturday that he would vote to repeal that 2005 law. “Let’s not forget what this is about. Ninety people a day die from gun violence in our country. That’s 33,000 people a year. One of the most horrific examples, not a block from here, is where we had nine people murdered.”

Sanders, who called Clinton’s attacks “disingenuous,” pointed to other gun control votes he’s made over the years and suggested she was trying to earn political points.

“We have seen in this city a horrendous tragedy,” Sanders said. “This should not be a political issue. We should be working together. And I believe I’m in an excellent position to bring people together.”

Feistier phase

It was a new and more aggressive phase of the campaign for Sanders and Clinton, who have escalated their attacks on each other as the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus and Nov. 9 New Hampshire primaries near. Both have much to lose. Clinton's air of inevitability would take a hit should she falter next month, while Sanders needs all the wins he can get before the race turns toward the more Clinton-friendly states in the South.

It’s also a stark contrast from past Democratic debates that were far more toned down than the must-see events from their Republican counterparts. In the run-up to the event, Sanders claimed Clinton’s campaign was in “serious trouble” — and he hit her with a new ad that ties her to special interests.

Clinton, meanwhile, tried to paint Sanders as a populist who promises far more than he can deliver by criticizing his plan to pay for a universal health care system that he calls "Medicare for All" as a tax on the middle class. Sanders' proposal, which he unveiled shortly before the debate, would impose a new 2.2 percent income tax on all Americans, as well as a 6.2 percent payroll tax on businesses.

“Health care should be available to all people,” Sanders said, adding: “We have to deal with is the fact that 29 million people still have no health insurance. We are paying the highest price in the world for prescription drugs, getting ripped off. And here’s the important point: We are spending far more per person on health care than the people of any other country.”

Clinton, on the other hand, offered her own more modest proposal to raise taxes for those with an annual income of more than $5 million to raise more revenue. And she warned that Sanders' plan could threaten President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, which she said was one of the "greatest accomplishments" of the Democratic Party.

“We finally have a path to universal health care. We’ve accomplished so much. I don’t want to see the Republicans repeal it,” she said. “And I don’t want us to start over again with a contentious debate.”

It also verged into more personal territory when Sanders was asked about his comments that former President Bill Clinton’s infidelity was “unacceptable.”

“Yes, his behavior was deplorable,” the Vermont senator said, as Mrs. Clinton looked on, nodding.

“I don’t like to attack, I don’t want to do what my advisers tell me to do,” Sanders said. “I called Bill Clinton deplorable because I was asked a question.”

Anyone watching?

Whether the debate will actually influence voters, though, is another question.

Democratic debate audiences have paled in comparison to the throngs watching the GOP events, and the absence of Donald Trump isn’t the only reason why. This debate — one of three sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee for a Saturday or Sunday evening — faced competition from NFL playoff games and a three-day holiday weekend many may have used to get away from home.

One heated clash that could resonate among the party’s base, though, revolved around bank regulation. Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, running in a distant third in the polls, both maligned Clinton for taking funds from Wall Street donors and not backing legislation that would have forced financial behemoths to disband.

“I don’t take big money from banks. I don’t take personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs,” said Sanders, who said the financial giant gave Clinton more than $600,000 in speaking fees in one year. “You have to break up these huge financial institutions. They have too much economic power and they have too much financial power.”

Clinton countered that regulations she supported in the U.S. Senate and backed while serving in the Obama administration give Washington far more power to rein in financial powerhouses than the government ever had before.

“The hedge fund billionaires who are running ads against me right now … I’m the one they don’t want to be up against,” she said, casting her attention to November. “We’re at least having a vigorous debate about reining in Wall Street. The Republicans want to give them more power.”