In sharp contrast to the latest Republican debate a few days before, the Democratic candidates for president clashed over issues from gun control to taxes and healthcare without exchanging vicious attacks against each other.
Within minutes of the debate in Charleston, South Carolina, the contest turned into a two-way showdown between the two leaders in polls, former Secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders – leaving former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley a mere decorative third person on the stage.
Clinton went on the attack repeatedly against Sanders, portraying the self-described democratic socialist as a revolutionary living in a dream world and presenting herself as an experienced force in politics who will get things done in Washington, even in a highly polarized political environment.
It was the clearest sign yet of how big a threat Clinton sees in Sanders, who is rising in the polls in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire just weeks before the caucuses and primaries in early February.
Sanders depicted Clinton as an ally of big banks and he vigorously defended his positions on guns – which Clinton said was too conservative – and health care – which she argued was confusing and threatened Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Clinton accused Sanders of harshly criticizing Barack Obama as she aligned herself closely with the president.
Disparaging comments from Sanders “don’t just affect me; I can take that,” Clinton said, “but he’s criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street and President Obama has led out country out of the great recession.”
She praised Obama for signing the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform bill. Sanders said he backed Obama in 2008 and 2012, but acknowledged, “we have some differences of opinion.”
Clinton appeared prepared to try to discourage Obama’s supporters from voting for Sanders by ticking off a long list of examples of how Sanders has distanced himself from Obama.
As the debate began, Sanders and Clinton quickly traded blows over guns, continuing a heated back-and-forth that has dominated the campaign trail in recent weeks.
“I think Secretary Clinton knows that what she says is very disingenuous,” Sanders said in response to Clinton’s charges that he has not advocated for gun control laws forcefully enough.
Clinton said Sanders flipped his position on Saturday by opposing a law he once supported granting immunity to gun companies.
The gun control issue has emerged as practically the only issue where Clinton believes she can attack Sanders from the left.
Consequently, she has stepped up her attacks on Sanders’ gun positions over the last few weeks, especially since President Obama launched his recent initiative to introduce modest restrictions on the country’s gun laws though executive action.
Sanders, who represents Vermont, a state with abundant hunters, does have a mixed record on guns. But many of the votes Clinton highlighted were cast decades ago. He now champions most of the same aggressive gun-control measures as Clinton and Obama, and he talks about it frequently on the campaign trail.
In sharp contrast to the Republican debate last week, foreign policy and the fight against ISIL in Syria and Iraq played almost no role in the Democratic debate.
The candidates agreed mostly about foreign policy, saying the United States should not get involved in a “quagmire” in the Middle East and defending President Obama’s record on the issue.
Clinton defended Obama against Republican attacks that he was weak and indecisive and instead praised the administration for its leadership on the Iran nuclear deal.
When Clinton was asked about her relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, she smiled and said it was “interesting” and characterized by “respect” – but she also called him a “bully”.