SOUTH CAROLINA - The final Democratic presidential debate before voting begins quickly turned personal Sunday as Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton traded barbs on gun control and health care.
Clinton slammed Sanders for voting "with the NRA, with the gun lobby numerous times," and reeled off a list of occasions when she said the Vermont senator sided with gun manufacturers and gun rights backers in Congress. She also said she was glad that he had "reversed his position on immunity," after Sanders backed away from a 2005 vote that gave gun manufacturers immunity from prosecution. He announced Saturday that he supports a proposed bill to amend that vote.
But Sanders hit back hard, arguing that he had a D-minus voting rating from the National Rifle Association and rejected her list of charges.
"I think that Secretary Clinton knows that what she says is very disingenuous," Sanders said.
The exchange was a powerful moment, unfolding on a debate stage just a block from the Charleston, South Carolina, church where a self-proclaimed white supremacist went on a shooting rampage last year that left nine African-Americans dead. The debate comes as Sanders is surging in some early state polls just two weeks ahead of the Iowa caucuses, handing him a realistic chance to beat Clinton in both the Hawkeye State and New Hampshire.
Clinton and Sanders have spent the past week tussling on health care. On the NBC debate stage, Clinton positioned herself as the defender of President Barack Obama's most cherished legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act. She warned that Sanders' proposed Medicare-for-all plan -- released just an hour before the debate -- would upend the health care law and incite a new struggle over health care with Republicans.
"I certainly respect Sen. Sanders' intentions," Clinton said, but added, "when you're talking about health care, the details really matter."
"We finally have a path to universal health care, we have accomplished so much already. I do not want to see the Republicans repeal it and I don't want us to start all over again with a contentious debate."
Sanders angrily rejected Clinton's claims that his plans would result in the gutting of Obamacare, saying that he wanted to build on the achievements of the current president, not overturn them.
"No one is tearing this up, we are going to go forward," Sanders said, his voice rising in anger. "That is nonsense."
Rising polls for Sanders
A new NBC/Wall Street Journal national poll on Sunday showed Clinton leading Sanders 59% to 34%, with the third candidate in the race, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, at 2%.
But recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire also show Clinton in an increasingly precarious position. A Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics survey had Clinton up just two points in the Hawkeye State last week. A survey by Monmouth University in the Granite State last week had Sanders ahead by 14 points.
Sanders sought to catch Clinton off balance over the swift rise in his poll numbers over the last month, stirring fears among some Clinton supporters that history could be repeating itself, after her once "inevitable" 2008 Democratic primary campaign foundered when then-Sen. Barack Obama won Iowa.
Sanders pointed out that when the campaign started, "she was 50 points ahead of me."
"Guess what: In Iowa, New Hampshire, the race is very very close," he said. "We are running ahead of Secretary Clinton in terms of taking on my good friend, Donald Trump."
Clinton hopes to use the debate to underscore her argument that she is the most electable Democrat, has the best experience required of a commander in chief and is more likely to beat a Republican in the general election.
The former secretary of state touted her connections to African-American voters, who are crucial in the Palmetto State primary and could form a firewall for her should she lose the first two contests in early February. When asked whether African-American lives are seen as "cheap," she responded, "Sadly, it's reality."
"It's been heartbreaking and increasingly outraging to see stories of young men like Walter Scott who have been killed by police officers," she said. "There needs to be a concerted effort to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system."
And she sought to tie herself as closely as possible to the Obama's legacy, praising him for pulling America out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. She accused Sanders of calling the President "weak" and "disappointing."
"I am going to defend President Obama for taking on Wall Street, taking on the finance industry and getting results," Clinton said. Sanders hit back by insisting that Obama was his friend, and took a swipe at Clinton over the lucrative months she spent on the speaking circuit after she left the State Department.
"I don't take money from big banks, I don't get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs," Sanders charged.
When the conversation turned to foreign policy, Clinton said she was "proud" of the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers implemented this weekend. She said she paved the way for it by getting punishing international sanctions imposed on the Islamic republic when she served as secretary of state. But she warned it would be wrong to move too quickly toward rapprochement with Tehran.
"We have one good day over 36 years," Clinton said, after a week in which frenzied diplomacy resulted in the freeing of 10 U.S. Navy sailors captured by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and a prisoner swap that saw four imprisoned Americans freed by Iran.
Clinton stressed that she had a three-point plan to crush ISIS in Syria and Iraq and to end the brutal civil war in Syria.
Sanders, meanwhile, warned that it would be wrong to send more Americans into the "quagmire of Syria" and once again brought up the cautionary tale of the war in Iraq that Clinton, then a senator, voted to authorize in 2002. He said that another U.S. venture in the Middle East would be "an unmitigated disaster."
Clinton, hoping to chip into Sanders' advantage among progressive Democrats, including young, independent and first-time caucus and primary goers, has been hammering her rival over his positions on gun control and health care.
In response to the pressure, Sanders on Saturday backed away from a 2005 vote that gave gun manufacturers immunity from prosecution, announcing he supports a proposed bill to amend that vote.
Clinton told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union" Sunday that she was glad that Sanders had "flip-flopped" on the issue, but Sanders told the same show that "I resent very much the Clinton camp saying I am in the NRA lobby."
An hour before the debate started, Sanders unveiled his long-awaited new health plan -- a Medicare-for-all system that would be paid for by raising a series of taxes on the middle class. Clinton has previously questioned exactly how Sanders could make his plan add up. But Sanders aides argue that the tax increase people would face would be outweighed by the savings they would get under the system.
"Universal health care is an idea that has been supported in the United States by Democratic presidents going back to Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman," Sanders said in a statement. "It is time for our country to join every other major industrialized nation on earth and guarantee health care to all citizens as a right, not a privilege."