CHARLESTON, United States — Democratic presidential candidates began their final debate on Sunday before first votes are cast in Iowa, hours after Bernie Sanders unveiled his universal health care plan and with Hillary Clinton knocking her rival on guns.
The pair, along with ex-Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, took the stage in Charleston, South Carolina with the temperature rising in the primary battle, as frontrunner Clinton feels the heat from challenger Sanders in a tightening nomination race.
All three are aware that their performance – the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses in two weeks – could have a crucial impact on who wins the state.
Sanders, who has drawn nearly even with Clinton in Iowa according to polls, sent shockwaves just two hours before the debate when he unveiled his "Medicare for All" proposal, which he said would save average American families thousands of dollars per year.
But the plan would raise taxes on Americans across the board and require a 6.2 per cent health care payroll tax on businesses, while slapping taxpayers with a 2.2 per cent "premium" based on income.
Sanders, an independent US senator who has described himself as a democratic socialist, said his plan would save $6 trillion over the next 10 years compared to the current system.
Clinton has assailed Sanders for peddling a federally administered national single-payer system that would prove too costly, and on Sunday she launched new criticism, saying Sanders's plan would shred President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, which has provided 19 million new people with health insurance.
"To tear it up and start over again... I think is the wrong direction," Clinton said at the NBC News-YouTube debate in Charleston, South Carolina.
With the two main rivals increasingly locking horns on policy positions, Clinton hit out at Sanders for his lax positions on gun control.
"He has voted with the NRA (National Rifle Association), with the gun lobby numerous times," she said, highlighting his many votes against legislation that mandated background checks for gun sales.
And she wryly congratulated the senator for having flip-flopped on a proposal that she has advanced to end gun makers' immunity from lawsuits.
"This should not be a political issue," Sanders said, noting the horrendous tragedy that befell the debate city of Charleston when a "crazed person" shot nine African Americans in a church last year.
"What we should be doing is working together."
'Hardest job in the world'
Sanders's political "revolution" has kept Clinton on her toes.
Establishment Democrats are wary of a repeat of 2008, when Clinton led all rivals into the Iowa home stretch, only to lose the state to little-known senator Barack Obama, who pulled the rug out from under his rival and eventually won the nomination and the White House.
Clinton is the presumptive favourite again for what she described in her opening debate statement as "the hardest job in the world. I'm prepared and ready to take it on."
But last year's scandal about her use of a private email account and private server while secretary of state has lingered, and her favorability ratings are lower than those of Sanders.
O'Malley, despite stage time with the other candidates, has made no substantial headway in polls and is seen by many as an also-ran.
He squeezed his way into the conversation with a clear indictment of the Clinton political juggernaut, stressing that it was time to "let go of the past and move forward."
The Democratic National Committee scheduled its first debate on a Tuesday in October. — AFP