CHARLESTON, S.C. — With just two weeks to go before the first votes of the 2016 race for president, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders engaged in their most contentious debate match-up to date, underscoring their tightening primary race as the Iowa caucuses draw near.
The pair tangled repeatedly Sunday night over who’s tougher on gun control and Wall Street and how to shape the future of health care in America.
Their heated rhetoric highlighted the central question fueling the increasingly competitive primary race: Will the Sanders passion beat out the Clinton practicality?
While Clinton remains the national front-runner, grassroots enthusiasm for Sanders’ outsider candidacy and his unapologetically liberal message has imperiled her lead in Iowa and expanded his advantage in New Hampshire.
“What this is really about is not the rational way to go forward,” Sanders said as he responded to Clinton’s argument that his health care plans would reignite a divisive political battle. “It’s whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies.”
Clinton derided as impractical Sanders’ ambitious aim to replace the country’s existing employer-based system of health care insurance with one in which the government becomes a “single payer,” providing coverage to all.
Instead, she urged a less-sweeping action to build on President Barack Obama’s health care law by working to further reduce out-of-pocket costs and control spending on prescription drugs.
“We have the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “That is one of the greatest accomplishments of President Obama, of the Democratic Party, and of our country.”
In doing so, she again cast herself as the natural successor to Obama and accused Sanders, until recently an independent, of being an unfaithful ally of the administration.
It’s a strategy aimed at locking down Democratic primary voters, particularly minorities, who make up a huge swath of the party’s base and remain devoted to Obama. But it’s a riskier approach in a general election, where as her party’s nominee, Clinton would have to woo voters who question whether they feel more economically secure after Obama’s eight years in office.