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Underdog Clinton Goes After Sanders in New Hampshire Debate

The former secretary of state went on the offensive as she trails Sanders by double-digits in the nation's first primary.
Photo by David Goldman/AP

Hillary Clinton's rising frustrations at Bernie Sanders's surging campaign burst onto the debate stage last night in New Hampshire, as she accused her Democratic nomination rival of inciting a "smear campaign" against her, despite his insistence he would wage a clean, fair fight and not go negative.

Following Clinton's razor-thin finish over Sanders in Iowa, the former secretary of state now finds herself five days out from the nation's first primary contest, in which she is the clear underdog, running behind Sanders by double digits. She went on the offensive Thursday night, in their first head-to-head debate of the election since the night of the Iowa caucuses.


The candidates sparred over campaign finance, universal health care, and foreign policy. Clinton challenged Sanders on the authenticity of his campaign and on-stage assertions that he respects the former secretary of state "very much."

At one point, Clinton accused Sanders of waging an "artful smear" against her by wielding the issue of high fees she received from speeches for Goldman Sachs and implying that she was under the thumb of Wall Street.

"I really don't think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you," Clinton said to Sanders. "If you have something to say, say it directly."

In response, Sanders turned the conversation back "to the issues," blaming "billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions" for the deregulation of Wall Street and high costs of health care, among other things, and highlighting his own campaign's lack of support from super PACs and financial interests.

Related: Sanders Wants an Audit of Iowa Results, But It Likely Won't Change Anything

After stumbling over a question in a CNN townhall on Wednesday night about her speaking fees and ties to financial institutions, Clinton doubled down on efforts to distance herself from Wall Street, casting banks and financial institutions as enemies who have recently attempted to undermine and run attack ads against her.

"You will not find that I have ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation I have received," Clinton said. "I have stood up and I have represented my constituents to the best of my abilities, and I'm very proud of that."


A recent feud between the pair about who was more progressive, and the definition of that label, also resurfaced at the debate. Clinton accused Sanders of playing "gatekeeper" on progressivism, arguing that even President Obama wouldn't fit Sanders' definition. "I don't know anyone else who fits that definition, but I know a lot of hard-fighting progressives in the Democratic party," Clinton said.

Sanders conceded that he considers Obama a progressive, adding; "I disagree with him on a number of issues including the trade agreement. But, yes, I think he has done an excellent job."

"Instead of arguing about definitions, let's talk about what we should do [for the country]," Sanders said.

While the candidates debated, the Sanders campaign sent an email to reporters titled "Hillary Clinton — a progressive on some days," which included a list of issues on which the former secretary of state has taken a more moderate position.

While Clinton maintains a slim nationwide advantage, and narrowly took the Iowa caucuses, Sanders's strong lead in New Hampshire and massive fundraising efforts have put her campaign in a precarious position.

"We're in a tough fight to win this nomination — we're facing an uphill battle in New Hampshire, and Senator Sanders is outraising and outspending us," Clinton's campaign wrote in an email to supporters shortly before the debate.

In the days of campaigning ahead of the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, Clinton will have to balance an effective takedown of what she perceives as Sanders's weak points on foreign policy and unachievable goals on healthcare and other proposals, while not going so far as to alienate his support base, in the event she does take the nomination.

Related: Here's What's at Stake for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in South Carolina

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields