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Clinton, Sanders tussle over health care in debate

Democratic presidential candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders participate in the NBC News - YouTube Democratic Candidates Debate on Sunday at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina. |AFP/Getty Images

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NEW YORK — In a sharp exchange over health care at the Sunday Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton deftly defended Obamacare and said Bernie Sanders’ proposal to replace it with “Medicare-for-all” would only push the nation into a “contentious debate.”

No matter the disagreements between Clinton, the former secretary of state, and Sanders, the Vermont senator who is a self-proclaimed democratic Socialist, the rivals were careful not to go too far in their attacks.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley whose waning campaign may not last to the next debate, was hardly a factor.

The fourth Democratic debate, in Charleston, S.C., is the last one before the first presidential votes are cast Feb. 1 in Iowa, Feb. 9 in New Hampshire, and Feb. 20 in South Carolina, where winning the backing of African American voters who helped elect President Barack Obama is crucial.

That’s why Clinton invoked Obama as much as she did.

A little more than two hours before the debate, Sanders unveiled a health care plan proposing the end of private health insurance, with the sudden release designed to throw Clinton off her game plan.

Hardly.

Instead it gave Clinton the opportunity to show why she is far more electable than Sanders as he went on about an unrealistic plan.

OPINION

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“Tearing up” the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature achievement, “and starting all over again,” Clinton said, would be “pushing our country into a contentious debate.” Top example she cited: On Jan. 8 Obama vetoed the Republican’s latest legislation to dismantle Obamacare.

Sanders said he had “the guts to stand up” for what he says is a better system as he dismissed her concerns about not wanting to start over.

Maybe in the abstract it is, but really, scrap Obamacare? Reopen the debate over health care that gave rise to the Tea Party movement?

A single-payer plan has been long favored by the Democratic progressive wing – whose members have been disappointed that Obama rejected it as a model for Obamacare. A pragmatic Obama argued that he could never get a universal health care system approved by a divided Congress; indeed, Obamacare became law without one Republican vote.

Sanders and Clinton also clashed over gun control, with Clinton accusing Sanders of voting “with the NRA” and the gun lobby. Sanders said Clinton was “disingenuous.”

Whatever Sanders’ record is on guns, both contenders now are in a race to show who is stronger on installing gun curbs – a striking contrast to Republicans running for president.

With Clinton going after Sanders over gun control, the debate location had significance — just blocks from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where nine parishioners were gunned down last summer.

In a pre-emptive move, Sanders reversed himself on Saturday night and said he favored legislation that would drop parts of a law granting gun makers and dealers immunity from lawsuits. Sanders debate-eve conversion comes as Clinton has been beating Sanders up as weak on gun control – a potential wedge issue with the Democratic base vote.

Republicans are sharpening their focus on Bill Clinton and his history of sexual infidelity. Near the end, Sanders was asked about comments he made about Bill Clinton’s “past transgressions.”

Hillary Clinton and Sanders got through an incredibly awkward situation. Sanders said the question “annoys” him because he wants to run an issues campaign.

“Yes, his behavior was deplorable,” Sanders said, turning to Clinton.

She nodded. And that was it.

The debate took place as Clinton and Sanders are in a dead heat in Iowa, the state with first presidential vote on Feb. 1. Sanders is ahead in New Hampshire, with a Feb. 9 primary. Nationally, Clinton has a solid lead, with a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Sunday putting Clinton at 59 percent with Democratic primary voters to 34 percent for Sanders and O’Malley with 2 percent.

The debate was hosted by NBC News, the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, the South Carolina Democratic Party and YouTube.

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