DURHAM, N.H. (AP) — Fireworks flying in their first one-on-one debate, Hillary Clinton accused Bernie Sanders Thursday night of subjecting her to an "artful smear." Sanders suggested that the former secretary of state was a captive of the political establishment.
The two candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination kept up a markedly more contentious tone than when they last debated, before the presidential voting began in Iowa, and it signaled how the race for the nomination has tightened five days ahead of the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.
The two argued over ideas, over tactics and over who has the liberal credentials to deliver on an agenda of better access to health care, more affordable college, dealing with income inequality and more.
It was Clinton who was the main aggressor, saying Sanders could never achieve his ambitious and costly proposals.
Then she went after the Vermont senator for his efforts to cast her as beholden to Wall Street interests because of the campaign donations and speaking fees that she's accepted from the financial sector.
"Time and time again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth, which really comes down to — you know, anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought," she said. "I just absolutely reject that, Senator. And I really don't think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you. And enough is enough. If you've got something to say, say it directly."
Sanders did not respond directly but listed a series of examples of how the political system in his view was "rigged."
"There is a reason why these people are putting huge amounts of money into our political system. And in my view, it is undermining American democracy," he said.
Sanders suggested that Clinton's loyalties were colored by a reliance on big corporate donors.
Clinton may say the right things, he suggested, but "one of the things we should do is not only talk the talk but walk the walk."
The two moved into another intense exchange over foreign policy, with Sanders appearing ill at ease as the moderators, Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd, pressed him to detail his views.
The debate on the campus of the University of New Hampshire, televised by MSNBC, comes days after the combatants finished in a virtual tie in Iowa and as the unexpectedly competitive nomination contest appears set to move beyond New Hampshire, where Sanders boasts a double-digit lead in public polling.
Clinton aimed considerable criticism at Sanders, who focused much of his fire on what he says is a political system rigged against ordinary Americans.
He said when a "kid gets caught with marijuana, that kid has a police record." But when "a Wall Street executive destroys the economy" and pays a $5 billion settlement, the exec has no criminal record. "That is what power is about, that is what corruption is about. And that is what has to change in the United States of America."
Clinton insisted that her regulatory policies would be tougher on Wall Street than Sanders' would be.
"I've got their number," she said, "the Wall Street guys."
Clinton called Sanders' sweeping proposals on health care and education "just not achievable," while Sanders countered that Clinton was willing to settle for less than Americans deserve.
"I do not accept the belief that the United States of America can't do that," Sanders said of his plan for universal health care and of his efforts to take on "the rip-offs of the pharmaceutical industry."
Sanders may have a big lead in New Hampshire polls, but he was eager to lower expectations for his finish there, casting himself as an underdog.
Clinton, for her part, signaled her determination to at least narrow the gap before Tuesday's vote in the state where she defeated Barack Obama in 2008 before ultimately losing the nomination to him.
Her prospects are much stronger in primaries and caucuses after New Hampshire, as the race moves on to states with more diverse electorates that are to her advantage.
The two renewed their running debate over who is the real progressive, with Clinton accusing Sanders of quoting her selectively to diminish her credentials.
On foreign policy, Sanders renewed his criticism of Clinton for her vote as a senator to authorize the war in Iraq, a vote that she later said was a mistake.
Clinton retorted: "A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS. We have to look at the threats that we face right now."
Sanders allowed that while Clinton had been secretary of state, "experience is not the only point. Judgment is."
On a nagging issue, Clinton was asked if she was sure that nothing problematic would come of the ongoing investigation into her use of a private email account and server to handle official messages when she was secretary of state, some of them later classified as top secret.
"I am 100 percent confident," she said.
Clinton delivered a spirited rebuke to the charge that Sanders has been making on the campaign trail that she is not a genuine progressive.
"It's really caused me to wonder who is left in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party," Clinton said. "Under his definition, President Obama is not progressive because he took donations from Wall Street."
Vice President Joe Biden wouldn't qualify because he supported the Keystone pipeline, she added.
Sanders, too, could face problems with such labels, she added, citing his votes: "I don't think it was particularly progressive to vote against the Brady (gun-control) bill five times," she said.
Sanders wouldn't yield, noting that Clinton has called herself a moderate in the past.
"There's nothing wrong with being a moderate," he said, but, he added, a person cannot be a moderate and a progressive at the same time.
When the fireworks had died out at the end of two hours, the two candidates had some conciliatory words for one another, with Sanders declaring, "on our worst days, I think it is fair to say, we are 100 percent better than any Republican candidate."
This report includes material from the Tribune Washington Bureau.