Democratic debate comes down to Obama legacy or deeper ‘revolution’

Not only clashing: Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders confer during a break. Photo: Mic SmithDuring the last Democratic candidates debate to be held before the crucial first primary competition in Iowa real differences emerged between the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist candidate who has emerged to challenge her from the left.

As the two clashed time and again, particularly over healthcare and gun regulation, it became even clearer that Clinton is determined to cast her race for the White House as one for a third Obama term, while Senator Sanders is calling for what he calls a “revolution” in American politics.

Despite the heated clashes in the debate – held in the Clinton stronghold of South Carolina – the candidates focused on issues and refused to engage in personal attacks.

Indeed at one point when he was asked to comment on former President Bill Clinton’s personal indiscretions, Sanders replied to increasing applause, “That question annoys me.  I cannot walk down the street – Secretary Clinton knows this – without being told how much I have to attack Secretary Clinton … I have avoided doing that, I’m trying to run an issues-oriented campaign.”

And on the issues they did disagree – as did Martin O’Malley​, the former Maryland governor trailing in the race, and also in the debate.

A crucial point of difference is over healthcare, an issue that both have campaigned on over long careers.

Though Clinton once championed a single-payer public health system similar to Australia’s, she now advocates sticking with and improving Obamacare​.

“I don’t to want see us start over again with a contentious debate. I want us to defend and build on the Affordable Care Act and improve it,” she said at one point.

But Sanders still believes in massive reform to a single-payer system, and during the debate he linked it to the broader issue that he is strongest on – highlighting the enervating impact of big money in America’s political system.

“Do you know why we can’t do what every other major country is doing [in healthcare]? It’s because we have a campaign finance system that is corrupt, we have Super PACs, we have the pharmaceutical industry pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into campaign contributions and lobbying.”

The most heated clashes came on the issue of gun control, an area in which Clinton’s record is more in line with the gun-control movement that is now broadly supported within the Democratic base.

The debate was held just steps from the Mother Emmanuel Church in which nine-people were gunned down by a racist young man last year.

Clinton said Sanders had a long record of supporting NRA-backed votes, adding that she welcomed his changed position on one set of laws that protects gun manufacturers from wrongful death lawsuits.

Sanders rejected the criticism. “I think that Secretary Clinton knows that what she says is very disingenuous,” he said.

The longevity and strength of the Sanders campaign has shocked the Clinton camp, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he is challenging her in the polls.

Though Clinton retains a comfortable 51 to 38.3 lead nationally, Sanders is within four points in Iowa according to the Real Clear Politics Poll average.

It is hard to see that this fourth debate will change that much, especially as it was held at 9pm East Coast time on the Sunday night of a long weekend.

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