Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton went on the attack early against rival Bernie Sanders in their first one-on-one debate on Thursday, sparing over foreign policy and questioning whether his domestic proposals were viable, saying it was unfair to question her liberal credentials.
Five days before New Hampshire holds the second of the state-by-state presidential nominating contests, the intensity of the tightening race was reflected in the sharp exchanges.
Iran and ISIS
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders locked horns over whether the United States should restore diplomatic relations with Iran.
Clinton said Sanders is wrong to support normalizing relations with a state sponsor of terrorism that she says is "destabilizing the region." According to the former secretary of state, if the next administration normalized relations immediately, the U.S. would remove one of the biggest pieces of leverage it has, but "you have to get action for action."
Sanders retorted by saying he never said the U.S. should normalize relations with Iran "tomorrow" but should try to "move forward." He pointed out that Clinton once called then-Sen. Barack Obama "naive" for wanting to talk to the nation's enemies.
Both Clinton and Sanders agreed that they do not want to see large numbers of American ground troops return to the Middle East, even in the fight against ISIS. The two described the U.S. role as providing assistance, through supplies, weapons and special forces — but not a massive ground force.
Clinton says sending ground troops "is off the table," a claim echoed by Sanders, who said " It must be Muslim troops on the ground [fighting ISIS] our job is to offer them the support they need. But at the end of the day, for a dozens of reasons the combat must be done by Muslim troops." Sanders said that as president his goal would be keeping the U.S. from getting "sucked into never-ending perpetual warfare within the quagmire of Syria and Iraq."
Sanders renewed his criticism of Clinton for her vote as a senator to authorize the war in Iraq, a vote 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."
Sanders also said the United States can't be the policeman of the world: "We cannot continue to do it alone. We need to work in coalition." Sanders also dismissed Defense Secretary Ash Carter's assessment that Russia now poses a graver national security threat to the U.S. than any other nation.
Asked to rank North Korea, Iran and Russia, Sanders chose North Korea as the biggest threat.
He calls the East Asian nation "an isolated, paranoid country with atomic bombs." That makes them more dangerous, he says, than Russia or China. Still, Sanders said he disapproves of Russian President Vladimir Putin's "military adventurism" in his region.
Clinton and Sanders also argued on healthcare, college affordability and efforts to rein in Wall Street.
Clinton said Sanders' proposal for single-payer universal healthcare coverage would jeopardize Obamacare, calling it "a great mistake," and she said his plans for free college education would be too costly to be realistic.
"I can get things done. I'm not making promises I can't keep," Clinton said.
Sanders said he would not dismantle Obamacare but would expand it, pointing to how many other countries provide universal healthcare.
"By moving forward, rallying the American people, I do believe we should have healthcare for all," he said.
Sanders said his proposal for free tuition at public universities would be paid with a tax on Wall Street speculation. "The middle class bailed out Wall Street in their time of need. Now, it is Wall Street's time to help the middle class," he said.
Polls show Sanders, a U.S. senator from neighboring Vermont, has a double-digit lead over Clinton in New Hampshire after surprising the front-runner by finishing just barely behind her in the kickoff contest in Iowa on Monday.
Since then, the Democrats have clashed sharply over who is more capable of carrying out the party's proposals to battle income inequality, bolster healthcare coverage and regulate Wall Street.
The exchanges had intensified ahead of the debate, the first since former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley dropped out on Monday night. It is one of four debates Clinton and Sanders agreed to add to the schedule on the long road to the Nov. 8 presidential election.
Sanders criticized Clinton as being too cozy with Wall Street, noting her Super PAC had taken contributions from Wall Street firms and that Clinton has taken speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.
Clinton called that an "artful smear" and said she had never changed a view or a vote because of her donations.
Clinton has tried to play down expectations for her performance in New Hampshire, where she came from behind for an upset victory in the 2008 campaign just days after losing badly to Barack Obama in Iowa.
The surprisingly strong performance by Sanders in Iowa is likely to prolong a race that Clinton entered as the prohibitive favorite.
In addition to previously scheduled debates in Wisconsin and Florida, the candidates added one in March in Flint, Michigan, to draw attention to the city's contaminated water crisis ahead of the Michigan primary. They also will debate in April and May.
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