Clinton, countering Sanders 'revolution,' cites experience
CHARLESTON, United States - Agence France-Presse
Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton speaks at the NBC, YouTube Democratic presidential debate at the Gaillard Center, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Charleston, S.C. AP photoDemocratic presidential candidates clashed late Jan. 17 in their final debate before first votes are cast in Iowa, with Hillary Clinton presenting herself as best qualified as she parried attacks from pugnacious rival Bernie Sanders.
The pair, along with former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, took the stage in Charleston, South Carolina as frontrunner Clinton feels the heat from challenger Sanders in a tightening nomination race.
All three are aware that their performance could be the best opportunity to reshape the race ahead of Iowa, which votes two weeks from Monday.
Sanders and Clinton sparred, sometimes intensely, over plans for universal health care, guns, battling Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) extremists and reining in Wall Street.
Clinton raced out of the gate touting her vast experience as former secretary of state, senator and point-woman for her husband Bill Clinton's efforts to reform health care, saying Americans need a president who can do "all aspects of the job" and signaling that her rivals were not up to the task.
"I understand that this is the hardest job in the world. I'm prepared and ready to take it on," she said.
Clinton, whose campaign has been surprised by the resilience of what Sanders called his "political revolution," said she was best qualified to "bring our country together" during polarizing times.
Sanders, who polls show is nearly even with Clinton in Iowa, sent shockwaves hours before the debate when he unveiled his "Medicare for All" proposal, which he said would save average American families thousands of dollars per year.
But the plan would raise taxes across the board and require a 6.2 percent health care payroll tax on businesses, while slapping taxpayers with a 2.2 percent "premium" based on income.
Sanders, an independent US senator and self-described democratic socialist, said his plan would save $6 trillion over 10 years compared to the current system.
Clinton has assailed Sanders for peddling a government-run single-payer system that would be too expensive.
On Jan. 17 she added that the plan would shred President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, which has helped 19 million new people get health insurance.
"To tear it up and start over again... I think is the wrong direction," Clinton said at the debate broadcast by NBC News.
Clinton also criticized Sanders for his positions on gun control.
"He has voted with the NRA (National Rifle Association), with the gun lobby numerous times," she said, highlighting his votes against legislation mandating background checks for gun sales.
And Clinton wryly congratulated Sanders for flip-flopping on a proposal she has advanced to end gun makers' immunity from lawsuits. In 2005 Sanders voted for legislation that gave gun manufacturers legal immunity.
"This should not be a political issue," Sanders said, noting the tragedy that befell Charleston when a "crazed person" shot nine African Americans in a church last year.
"What we should be doing is working together."
O'Malley has made little headway with voters despite considerable debate stage time. He squeezed into the conversation Jan. 17, indicting the Clinton political juggernaut by stressing that it was time for voters to "let go of the past and move forward." However it is Sanders's success that has jostled team Clinton.
Sanders accused the former first lady of cozying up to billionaires, and claimed that she would not be tough enough on Wall Street banks.
"We have an economy that's rigged," Sanders said as he drew a sharp contrast with Clinton.
"I don't take money from big banks. I don't get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs," he said, noting that Clinton has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars for addressing the bank.
Establishment Democrats are wary of a repeat of 2008, when Clinton was ahead in the polls but lost in Iowa to little-known senator Barack Obama, who eventually won the nomination and the White House.
Clinton is again the presumptive favorite. But last year's scandal about her use of private email while secretary of state has battered her favorability ratings, which are below Sanders's.
The Republican National Committee blasted the Democrats for failing to focus enough on foreign issues.
"At a time when concerns over terrorism are at their highest point in years, all three candidates omitted any mention of national security or foreign policy from their top three priorities," read the RNC statement.
"Democrats doubled down on the extreme and failed policies of the current administration."
Republican front runner Donald Trump had no immediate reaction, but in a sign of how personal the race has become, his rival Ted Cruz posted a short video of old interviews in which Trump praises Clinton.
"As the #DemDebate begins, Republicans have to wonder which team @realDonaldTrump would play for," read the Twitter message, which included the video link.