Photo Credit: AFP / Jewel Samad

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders went head to head Thursday in their first televised duel as they fight for the Democratic White House nomination ahead of the New Hampshire primary.

The 90-minute debate at the University of New Hampshire in the small college town of Durham comes three days after Clinton clinched the narrowest victory in Iowa caucus history against Sanders and five days before the country’s first state primary in the election process.

Sanders, the 74-year-old independent senator from neighboring Vermont, leads Clinton by 20 points in the latest New Hampshire polls with a campaign that outstripped the Clinton fundraising machine in January.

While most expect Clinton to ultimately win the Democratic nomination, Sanders has taken the establishment by surprise by whipping up passionate support with a grassroots campaign focused on improving the lives of working and struggling middle class Americans.

Clinton and Sanders tussled over their claim to represent the progressive wing of the party, and their differences on Wall Street, health care and taxes at the debate aired on and moderated by MSNBC.

In some of the fiercest exchanges of the 2016 presidential race so far, Clinton accused her challenger of “artfully smearing” her with “innuendo and insinuation” by suggesting payments from Wall Street were a sign of corruption.

“If you have something to say, say it,” she demanded, as the absence of the recently-departed third candidate Martin O’Malley left Sanders frequently on the ropes with little pause between volleys from Clinton and MSNBC moderators.

At times looking bruised by the onslaught, Sanders doubled down on his argument that extensive lobbying by the finance, pharmaceutical and energy industries were a major reason they had enjoyed favourable deregulation from Congress.

Clinton responded that she was an enemy, not an ally, of Wall Street. “Hedge fund guys are trying so hard to stop me,” she claimed. But a flustered Sanders failed to point out that Clinton had attended a fundraiser in Philadelphia hosted by hedge fund managers only last week.

The Vermont senator was also left on the defensive over foreign policy, where he admitted his one speech on the subject had failed to convey his strategy clearly enough.

On the rare occasions where there were less fiery exchanges between the two, both appealed to struggling Americans with Clinton presenting herself as the candidate who can actually deliver and Sanders earning the first big cheer of the night by alluding to himself as a fresh voice.

“I want to imagine a country where people’s wages reflect their hard work and we have health care for everyone,” Clinton said.

“I’m fighting for people who cannot wait for those changes and I’m not making promises I cannot keep.”

Asked why he thinks he can deliver his sweeping economic and health reforms, Sanders quipped: “I haven’t quite run for president before,” to cheers, alluding to Clinton’s previous bid for the White House.

Sanders claimed a moral victory in Monday’s Iowa vote, winning 49.6 percent to Clinton’s 49.8 percent, in the first vote of the 2016 election cycle having trailed as a distant second only months earlier.

Clinton is now trying to shave Sanders’ New Hampshire lead and regain some momentum going into friendlier territory later this month in Nevada and South Carolina.

Their debate showdown, scheduled at the last minute, is the first without Democratic challenger Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who dropped out after a disastrous showing in Iowa.

It comes one night after they appeared back-to-back at a town hall in Derry, New Hampshire clashing over who will more faithfully carry the progressive torch.

Clinton insists she is “a progressive who gets results,” as opposed to the more ideological “political revolution” espoused by Sanders, 74, who has chased young and first-time voters.

The more moderate Clinton is about incremental change: slow but steady reforms on Wall Street, tweaks to Obama’s Affordable Care Act and expanding university scholarships.

Clinton, 68, acknowledged she faces an uphill battle in winning over the younger vote, which polls show identifies strongly with Sanders’ poverty-busting agenda and free tuition at public colleges.

Sanders insists he is the candidate more committed to reining in billionaires’ influence on the US political system.

An NBC, Wall Street Journal, Marist poll released hours before the debate gave Sanders 58 percent support among likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire and Clinton 38 percent.

Sanders also leads the former first lady among independents, 69 to 26 percent, and voters aged 18-29 by 76 to 24 percent, the poll found.

Republicans are also swarming to New Hampshire for the crucial February 9 vote, with Donald Trump eager to reclaim the lead after he was beaten in Iowa by arch-conservative Senator Ted Cruz.

Summarised from: Reuters/The Guardian


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