Washington: It wasn't anything like the fiery Republican debate, but Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton went into the attack against rival Bernie Sanders, who is fast catching up with her in the polls.
Totally embracing President Barack Obama, the former secretary of state attacked the self-styled Democratic socialist Sanders on guns and healthcare as accused him of hostility towards her 2008 rival turned boss.
Meeting in Charleston, South Carolina for the NBC News-YouTube Democratic presidential candidates' debate Sunday, Clinton, Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley displayed their sharp differences on issues ranging from health care to guns to Obama's record.
Meeting two weeks before the first nominating contests in Iowa on Feb 1, Clinton slammed Sanders for voting "with the gun lobby numerous times," and accused the Vermont senator of siding with gun manufacturers and gun rights backers in Congress.
But Sanders hit back hard, arguing that he had a D-minus voting rating from the National Rifle Association and rejected her list of charges. "I think that Secretary Clinton knows that what she says is very disingenuous," he said.
The Democratic clash took place just a block from the Charleston, South Carolina, church where a self-proclaimed white supremacist went on a shooting rampage last year that left nine African-Americans dead.
Defending Obama's signature healthcare law, Clinton said that Sanders' proposed Medicare-for-all plan -- released just an hour before the debate -- would upend the health care law and incite a new struggle over health care with Republicans.
Sanders angrily rejected Clinton's claims that his plans would result in the gutting of Obamacare, saying that he wanted to build on the achievements of the current president, not overturn them.
"No one is tearing this up. We are going to go forward," Sanders said, his voice rising in anger. "That is nonsense."
A new NBC/Wall Street Journal national poll on Sunday showed Clinton leading Sanders 59 percent to 34 percent, with O'Malley, at 2 percent. But recent polls show him running neck and neck in Iowa and 14 points ahead in New Hampshire.
Reminding the audience that when the campaign started, "she was 50 points ahead of me," Sanders said: "Guess what: In Iowa, New Hampshire, the race is very very close."
"We are running ahead of Secretary Clinton in terms of taking on my good friend, Donald Trump," he said referring to the brash Republican frontrunner.
Tying herself to the Obama legacy, Clinton praised him for pulling America out of the worst recession since the Great Depression and accused Sanders of calling the President "weak" and "disappointing."
"I am going to defend President Obama for taking on Wall Street, taking on the finance industry and getting results," Clinton said.
Sanders hit back by insisting that Obama was his friend, and took a swipe at Clinton over the lucrative months she spent on the speaking circuit after she left the State Department.
"I don't take money from big banks, I don't get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs," Sanders charged.
Clinton said she would turn to her husband Bill Clinton "for advice and, in particular, how we're going to get the economy working again for everybody."
Sanders, in turn, defended his criticism of the former president's indiscretions saying: "I was asked a question."
Sanders, who had described Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky as "totally, totally disgraceful and unacceptable," reiterated he is running against Hillary and not Bill Clinton even as he again called the former president's behavior "deplorable."
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