CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – U.S. Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton went on the offensive against top challenger Bernie Sanders at a debate on Sunday in reaction to his recent rise in opinion polls, saying he is soft on gun control and that his proposed health care overhaul is unrealistic.
Clinton, who leads in polls nationally but has seen Sanders gain in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, tried to raise questions repeatedly about the self-styled democratic socialist at their last face-to-face encounter before Iowa holds the first nominating contest of 2016 on Feb. 1.
Clinton pounced on Sanders’ “Medicare-for-all” plan that was announced just hours before the debate and came in response to Clinton’s criticism of his previous record on health care over his career as a U.S. senator from Vermont.
The former secretary of state, former U.S. senator and wife of former President Bill Clinton said Sanders’ health care plan would undermine President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act at a time when Republican legislators are still trying to repeal and replace it.
“I have to say I’m not sure whether we’re talking about the plan you introduced tonight or the plan you introduced nine times over 20 years,” she told Sanders. “But the fact is we have the Affordable Care Act. … We have already seen 19 million Americans get insurance.”
Sanders said he wanted to build on the Obama law by making health insurance more affordable.
“Nobody is tearing this up,” he said, referring to the program popularly known as Obamacare. “We’re moving forward.”
Sanders’ rise in the polls threatens to derail Clinton’s presidential plans for the second time. In 2008, Obama defeated her in the race for the Democratic nomination.
He referred to his rising poll numbers in saying he believed he could expand his number of supporters to include more African-American voters, noting that when his presidential campaign began, Clinton was 50 percentage points ahead of him in the polls.
“Guess what: In Iowa, New Hampshire, the race is (now) very, very close,” he said.
Clinton also accused Sanders of being weak on gun control. She welcomed Sanders’ decision on Saturday night to back a bill in Congress that would rescind portions of a law giving gun-makers immunity from lawsuits.
But she said Sanders’ record showed a more lenient attitude toward the demands of the National Rifle Association (NRA) gun lobby.
“He voted to let guns go on Amtrak (trains), guns go into national parks. He voted against doing research to figure out how we can save lives. Let’s not forget what this is about: Ninety people a day die of gun violence in our country,” Clinton said.
Sanders defended himself, saying he has a strong record on trying to prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands and standing up against the powerful NRA.
“I think Secretary Clinton knows what she says is very disingenuous,” he said.
The leading Democratic contenders have stepped up their attacks on each other during the past week, battling over guns, health care and Wall Street with growing intensity as polls showed Sanders gaining ground on Clinton in key states.
Clinton and Sanders were joined by former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who lags badly in polls, in what was the fourth debate between the Democratic contenders.
Sanders has pulled into a statistical tie with Clinton in recent polls in Iowa, whose caucuses on Feb. 1 are the first contest in the race to pick a nominee for the November election. He also leads Clinton in the next state to vote, Vermont neighbor New Hampshire, on Feb. 9, according to polls.
Hours before the debate, Sanders answered Clinton’s demand to explain funding for his health care plan, proposing a “Medicare-for-all” system funded by a 2.2 percent “premium” on individuals and a 6.2 percent payroll tax paid by employers.
The plan also includes a new estate tax on the wealthiest Americans and changes in the tax code to make rates more progressive. The top rate, 52 percent, would apply to those making more than $10 million a year.