DURHAM, N.H.—Their race newly energized, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders head into the first one-on-one debate of the Democratic presidential contest Thursday night in a tussle over their very political identities.
The two candidates are sparring over who is the best standard-bearer for progressive values — and who can actually deliver on a liberal agenda of providing universal health care access, reducing income inequality, protecting worker rights and more.
“Good ideas on paper are important, but you’ve got to be able to translate them into action,” Clinton declared on the eve of the debate.
Sanders, for his part, said Clinton’s record is “just not progressive” on any number of issues, given her vote as a senator to authorize the war in Iraq and her campaign’s reliance on money from Wall Street and drug companies.
The race for the Democratic nomination, once seen as a sure thing for Clinton, intensified this week after Sanders held the former secretary of state to a whisper-thin margin of victory in Iowa’s leadoff caucuses. The tone of their back-and-forth has become increasingly sharp, and the candidates agreed to add four more debates to the primary season schedule, including Thursday’s faceoff in Durham.
The debate is the last before Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, and Sanders holds a big lead in polls in the state.
In fresh evidence of the tightening race, Clinton reported that her campaign had raised $15 million in January — $5 million less than Sanders and the first time she’s been outraised by her opponent. Her finance director called the numbers “a very loud wake-up call” in a fundraising email to supporters.
Heading into the debate, Sanders was eager to lower expectations for his finish in New Hampshire, casting himself as an underdog against “the most powerful political organization in the country.”
Clinton, for her part, signaled her determination to at least narrow the gap before Tuesday’s vote in the state where her husband in 1992 placed second and styled himself the “Comeback Kid.” Her prospects are much stronger in primaries and caucuses after New Hampshire, as the race moves on to states with more diverse electorates that are to her advantage.
The two campaigns have even skirmished this week over why Sanders is doing so well in New Hampshire polls. His campaign accused Clinton’s of insulting New Hampshire voters by suggesting they only support the Vermont senator because he’s from a neighboring state. That was after Clinton’s campaign manager referred to New Hampshire as Sanders’ “backyard.”
On a broader issue, Clinton offers herself to voters as “a progressive who gets things done,” part of her pitch that she’s the one with the practical skills to implement a progressive agenda.
Sanders’ counter-argument is that it will take a “political revolution” to achieve goals such as universal health care, a fairer tax system and an incorruptible campaign finance system.
Asked this week if Clinton is a progressive, he said: “Some days, yes. Except when she announces that she is a proud moderate. Then I guess she is not a progressive.”
Sanders added that it is hard to take on the establishment “when you become as dependent as she has through her super PAC and in other ways on Wall Street or drug company money.”
Clinton said she found it amusing that the senator thinks he can be the “gatekeeper” of who’s progressive.
The Durham debate will be the first faceoff for Clinton and Sanders since former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley dropped out of the race after a poor showing in Iowa.
Clinton’s razor-thin win in Iowa was the latest twist in an election campaign that, until recently, had been dominated by the crowded and cacophonous Republican contest. GOP candidates, who debate again Saturday, were all over New Hampshire ahead of the primary.
Donald Trump, who finished second in the Iowa caucuses, took fresh aim Wednesday at caucus winner Ted Cruz, the firebrand Texas senator who appears to be running behind in the Granite State and is hoping for momentum to carry him into South Carolina later this month.
For other Republicans such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, New Hampshire may be their last stand as they try to chisel establishment support away from Florida’s junior Sen. Marco Rubio, who finished a strong third in Iowa.
The Democrats debate again on Feb. 11.