DURHAM, N.H. — Hillary Clinton is not going down to defeat to Sen. Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire without a fight. That was the overriding message that came through when the two Democrats met for their first face-to-face debate of what has become a very competitive and spirited contest for their party’s nomination.

For months, Clinton and Sanders had waged a relatively polite and respectful campaign against each other. Clinton originally saw no particular interest in going after Sanders, and the Vermont senator claimed he had never run a negative campaign in his life and wouldn’t do so. In fact, the two have been edging closer and closer to outright attacks. On Thursday night, it all boiled over on the debate stage.

Clinton, apparently carrying a sense of grievance that has been building for some time, leveled her toughest attack yet on her rival, accusing him of waging “a campaign of innuendo by insinuation” that she had been corrupted by taking money from Wall Street interests. “It’s time to end that very artful smear that you and your campaign carried out,” she said, adding, “Let’s talk about the issues that divide us.”

And that’s what they did, arguing passionately over health care, financial institutions, money in politics, foreign policy and other issues. Irritated by Sanders’ claim that she is not a true progressive, Clinton repeatedly sought to punch holes in that argument. Offended by her charges, Sanders stood his ground and fired back at her.

As in past debates, both candidates had moments in which they shined, although whether voters’ minds were changed wasn’t obvious. Sanders reassured his supporters with a ringing defense of the big-government agenda he has championed throughout the campaign. Clinton gave hope to her nervous supporters by rising to the moment, trying to balance progressive passion with governing realism.

The flash point this week has been who is the true progressive. Sanders on Tuesday questioned Clinton’s bona fides as a progressive, in large part because she has a super PAC and takes campaign contributions from people in the financial industry. Clinton objected to Sanders playing the role of gatekeeper in defining who is a real progressive.


In a party that has shifted left, Clinton has the harder argument. Sanders has struck a chord with grass-roots progressives by calling for universal health care, free college, a big government jobs program and a big hike in the minimum wage.

Again on Thursday night, Clinton tried to claim both that she is as progressive as Sanders in her goals but far more realistic in what can actually be accomplished. “I will not make a promise I can’t keep,” she said.

The Democratic nomination contest began as a seeming mismatch between one of the world’s most recognizable and powerful women and a socialist senator who was little known outside his home state of Vermont.

But the longer it has gone on, the more it has raised questions about Clinton, who has struggled to generate the same kind of passion that surrounds the Sanders candidacy and finds herself trailing badly in a state she won eight years ago.

The latest polls, which show Sanders with a 20-point lead here, underscore her weaknesses with young people, with men and with voters who describe themselves as independent. Even if she prevails in the battle for the nomination, as many Democrats still expect, she may have to deal with those deficiencies in a general election.

Many of the questions that dogged her in her 2008 campaign have come back again this year, questions about her ability to connect with voters, her authenticity and her message. Her candidacy offers the possibility of something historic – the first female president of the United States – but that alone has not been enough to generate the same kind of energy that Sanders’ campaign enjoys.


Part of the reason is that Sanders has proven to be a more-than-capable candidate who has learned on the job and grown the longer the campaign has gone on. Rumpled as ever, Sanders has managed to project his own quirky authenticity championing an agenda that has caught fire at the grass roots.

It is an audacious agenda – Clinton calls it unrealistic in its ambitiousness – but it has found an audience, especially among idealistic young voters and liberal Democrats who wish President Obama had been willing to propose some of the same things.

That has left Clinton in the awkward position of having to try to knock down the dreamer, never an easy argument to make, particularly in a party with pent-up desire for many of the ideas Sanders is pushing.

Clinton’s argument against Sanders is the same one she used against Obama eight years ago, arguing that soaring oratory and grand ideals are no substitute for the hard, slogging work of making policy and enacting legislation. In that case, it did not work. Democratic voters narrowly sided with Obama.

What isn’t known now is whether Sanders will push Clinton as long and as hard as Obama did. He has the money to carry on for months and a passionate base of supporters who want him to do that. A victory here on Tuesday would give him a boost after the very strong showing he made against Clinton in Iowa.

But Clinton is a battler when she is in trouble, and on Thursday she let everyone know that’s the case right now.

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