MILWAUKEE • Mrs Hillary Clinton, scrambling to recover from her double-digit defeat in the New Hampshire primary, repeatedly challenged the trillion-dollar policy plans of Senator Bernie Sanders in their presidential debate on Thursday night and portrayed him as a big talker who needed to "level" with voters about the difficulty of accomplishing his agenda.
Foreign affairs also took on unusual prominence as Mrs Clinton sought to underscore her experience and Mr Sanders excoriated her judgment on Libya and Iraq.
With tensions between the two Democrats becoming increasingly obvious, the debate was full of new lines of attack from Mrs Clinton, who faces pressure to puncture Mr Sanders' growing popularity before the next nominating contests in Nevada and South Carolina.
She is wagering that voters excited by Mr Sanders' inspiring message will reconsider their support when they learn of his lack of experience in foreign policy and his vague explanations for how he will pay for his expansive programmes.
Mrs Clinton pounced from the start, after Mr Sanders demurred in saying how much his proposals would increase the size of the federal government. She stepped in and said that by economists' estimates, the government would grow 40 per cent under Mr Sanders. She implied he had not been transparent about the cost of his programmes, such as his proposed expansion of government healthcare.
"This is not about maths - this is about people's lives, and we should level with the American people," Mrs Clinton said. "Every progressive economist who has analysed that says the numbers don't add up."
"I don't know what economists Secretary Clinton is talking to," Mr Sanders responded, insisting that families could come out with savings. "That is absolutely inaccurate."
Mr Sanders, who has exuded confidence since his New Hampshire win, was more pointed and even belittling of Mrs Clinton at times. He said bluntly that some of her attacks were wrongheaded, and he was dismissive after Mrs Clinton talked about her plans to increase federal spending by about US$100 billion a year.
After Mrs Clinton responded to a question by saying "once I'm in the White House", he began his next answer by saying "Secretary Clinton, you're not in the White House yet", drawing some murmurs and jeers.
The candidates had one of their sharpest exchanges of the race when the debate moderators asked them which leaders they admire. Mr Sanders named Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, while Mrs Clinton named Nelson Mandela - and then used the question to berate her opponent for his complaints about President Barack Obama over the years.
"The kind of criticism that we've heard from Senator Sanders about our President, I expect from Republicans," she said. "I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination."
Mr Sanders called the comment a "low blow". "One of us ran against Barack Obama," he fired back at Mrs Clinton. "I was not that candidate."
The role of commander in chief was another flashpoint in the debate. Mrs Clinton pointed to Mr Sanders' record and his minimal expertise in foreign policy. But Mr Sanders argued that his judgment was better than Mrs Clinton's, and more important than her experience. He criticised Mrs Clinton's 2002 vote to authorise the war in Iraq and her push to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
NEW YORK TIMES