Fresh off her double-digit loss in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton sought to undermine surging rival Bernie Sanders in Milwaukee yesterday, arguing that his expansive agenda for government action on healthcare, college costs and infrastructure investments is both impractical and far more costly than he has said.
The sixth Democratic debate turned fiery only in the final minutes, when the two clashed over foreign policy and over comments by Sanders critical of President Barack Obama.
"I couldn't disagree more," Clinton said, accusing Sanders of levelling the kind of attacks on the President usually heard from Republicans.
"That is a low blow," Sanders said, saying he had worked with the President throughout the past seven years. "Have you ever disagreed with the President?" he asked.
Overall, the debate highlighted anew the fundamental faultline between the two candidates for the Democratic nomination, with Sanders standing his ground on behalf of a big and bold agenda that has energised progressives across the United States and Clinton expressing her support for many of her rival's goals but arguing that she has the preparation to make real progress in a divided country.
After a pair of heated contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two Democrats spent much of their two-hour debate in relatively civil disagreement.
They disagreed over the size and scope of government and traded views on topics including race and criminal justice, immigration and social security.
The debate probably changed few minds in the Democratic race. Nor did it answer some of the key questions, such as can Sanders expand his appeal from a largely white base of supporters and attract the votes of African Americans and Hispanics, and can Clinton retool her message to counter the enthusiasm behind Sanders' candidacy.
Some of the sharpest exchanges came over the role of money in the political system.
With an eye to forthcoming contests in Nevada and South Carolina, both used their opening statements to appeal to minority voters, who will play a far more significant role in those states than they did in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Clinton sought to put Sanders on the defensive early when he was asked how much more government would cost under a Sanders Administration. When Sanders was told he had not answered the question, he offered a ringing defence of his philosophy. "In my view, the Government of a democratic society has a moral responsibility to play a vital role in making sure all of our people have a decent standard of living," he said.
Clinton answered the question, saying her best estimate of the price of his plans would raise the cost of government by 40 per cent.
When Clinton was asked what her proposals would cost, she priced them at about US$100 billion ($149.7 billion) a year, all of which she said were paid for by tax increases.
"And I think once I'm in the White House we will have enough political capital to be able to do that." To which Sanders replied, "Well, Secretary Clinton, you're not in the White House yet."
Clinton's challenges appealing to women voters came under the spotlight. In New Hampshire, Sanders carried women voters by 11 points. Clinton was hardly helped when, during a campaign event, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright scolded younger women who didn't support Clinton by using an oft-repeated line: that women who don't support each other are destined to a "special place in hell".
Asked whether she agreed with Albright, Clinton said, "I think that she's been saying that for as long as I've known her. It doesn't change my view that we need to empower everyone, women and men, to make the best decision in their minds that they can make."
As the debate turned to the issue of Clinton's donations from Wall St, she turned to Obama as a shield. Sanders, Clinton said, was insinuating that "if you take donations from Wall St you can't be independent".
"He [Obama] was the recipient of the largest number of Wall St donations of anybody running on the Democratic side ever," Clinton said. "When it mattered he stood up and took on Wall St."
Sanders outstripped Clinton's campaign in fundraising last month by pulling in large sums from small donations collected online.
Though he declined to accuse Clinton directly of being bought, he quipped: "Let's not insult the intelligence of the American people. Why in God's name does Wall St make huge campaign contributions?"