WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidates square off for a crucial debate Sunday, with front-runner Hillary Clinton feeling the heat from challenger Bernie Sanders in a tightening nomination race two weeks before the first vote is cast in Iowa.
The pair, along with Maryland former Gov. Martin O’Malley, take the stage in Charleston, South Carolina, with the temperature rising in the primary battle.
All three are aware that their performance — the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 — could have a crucial impact on who wins the state.
Even before the debate began, Clinton and Sanders took aim at each other across the airwaves in interviews on Sunday television talk shows, on issues like gun control, health care and regulating Wall Street.
“She doesn’t have a plan. That’s the concern,” groused Sanders when asked about Clinton’s plan for paid family and medical leave in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
In a separate segment on the same show, Clinton wryly congratulated the Vermont senator for having “flip-flopped” on a proposal that she has advanced to end gun makers’ immunity from lawsuits.
Establishment Democrats are wary of a repeat of 2008, when Clinton led all rivals into the Iowa home stretch, only to lose the state to little-known Sen. Barack Obama, who pulled the rug out from under his rival and eventually won the nomination and the White House.
Clinton is the presumptive favorite again. But last year’s scandal about her use of a private email account and private server while secretary of state has lingered, and her favorability ratings are lower than those of Sanders.
O’Malley, despite stage time with the other candidates, has made no substantial headway in polls and is seen by many as an also-ran.
While leading nationally, Clinton suddenly finds herself under threat of losing the first two state contests, on Feb. 1 in Iowa, where the pair are neck and neck in the polls, and Feb. 9 in New Hampshire, where Sanders has a significant lead.
All too aware of the Sanders surge, Clinton sharpened her offensive against him this past week, highlighting her policy differences with the self-declared democratic socialist on guns, health care and taxes.
Charleston was the scene last year of the horrific murder of nine African-Americans gunned down in a church, and gun control is likely to feature prominently in Sunday’s debate.
Clinton has assailed Sanders for being weak on gun control. This past week she released an ad knocking Sanders on firearms, in particular his votes against a landmark bill requiring background checks for gun sales.
“It is time to pick a side,” Clinton says in the spot. “Either we stand with the gun lobby or we join the president and stand up to them.”
Sanders, for his part, has accused the former first lady of having cozied up to billionaires and said she would not be tough enough on Wall Street banks. He will mine that vein further on Sunday.
America’s battle against Islamic State extremists is also expected to be on the agenda.
One sticking point is the peculiarity of the Democratic debate schedule.
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) scheduled its first debate on a Tuesday in October — while the Republicans began debating in August.
Since then the Democrats have held weekend affairs only. The latest came during the Christmas shopping rush on the same day — to the surprise of some political observers — that the much-awaited new “Star Wars” movie was opening.
Republicans seized on the schedule to accuse Democratic leadership of seeking to protect Clinton from excessive on-stage criticism that would be seen by millions.
The DNC “could be doing a much better job of showcasing its candidates,” the Las Vegas Review Journal wrote in a recent editorial, adding, “Nowhere is this more evident than in the DNC’s curiously weak debate schedule.”
Last Thursday’s Republican debate was engaging, rowdy, bizarre and tense.
All six Republican showdowns have been must-see TV for political junkies and for Republican voters eager not only to study the difference between the several candidates, but to wonder at the bombast of front-runner Donald Trump.