Martin O'Malley+Hillary Clinton+Bernie Sanders

Evan Halper and David Lauter
January 18, 2015

After a succession of Democratic presidential debates that largely avoided the acrimony and personal affronts that have defined the GOP face-offs, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders clashed sharply Sunday on guns, healthcare and President Obama’s legacy.

A tight race will do that. And Clinton now finds herself in one in the crucial early states of New Hampshire and Iowa. Sunday’s debate was the last such televised clash before the voting begins Feb. 1 in Iowa.

Clinton challenged Sanders aggressively. But even as she sought to reshape the race in the first two states, she seemed intent on bolstering her support among the minority voters whom she will depend on to get her campaign back on track if she loses those contests.

She particularly went after African American voters, who dominate the Democratic electorate here in South Carolina and many other Southern states that will vote over the next eight weeks, as she denounced “systemic racism” in the criminal justice system and accused Sanders of having disrespected President Obama.

Sanders had called Obama “weak, disappointing” and had talked up the idea of a primary challenge to him before his reelection in 2011, Clinton charged.

Sanders defended his support for Obama, stressing that he had campaigned for him in 2008 and saying that “we’ve worked together on many issues.

“We have some differences of opinion,” he conceded.

The subtext of support for Obama arose again as the two clashed over healthcare, where Sanders has pushed a “Medicare-for-all,” single-payer plan.

Asked about the issue, Clinton repeated an attack that she and her supporters have used increasingly over the last couple of weeks — that Sanders’ plan would in effect “tear up” President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

The health law was one of “the greatest accomplishments of President Obama,” Clinton said, citing the 19 million Americans who have received health insurance since the law took full effect.

“There are things we can do to improve it, but to tear it up and start over again, pushing our country back into that kind of contentious debate, I think is the wrong direction,” she said.

“Even when Democrats were in charge of Congress” in 2009 and 2010, “we couldn’t get the votes” for a public healthcare program, Clinton noted.

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