DURHAM (New Hampshire) • In a brutally caustic debate, Mrs Hillary Clinton accused her Democratic challenger for the White House Bernie Sanders of smear tactics and warned that his promises of political revolution "don't add up".
Mrs Clinton, lobbing her harshest assault yet in the race for their party's presidential nomination, said months of criticism by Mr Sanders over her taking speaking fees from Wall Street banks amounted to a suggestion that she was corrupt - or, as she put it, a "very artful smear" - a remark that drew boos from the audience of 600.
The 90-minute debate at the University of New Hampshire in the small college town of Durham on Thursday came three days after Mrs Clinton clinched the narrowest victory in Iowa caucus history against Mr Sanders and five days before the first state primary in the 2016 election process.
Mr Sanders, the 74-year-old independent senator from neighbouring Vermont, leads by 20 points in the latest New Hampshire polls with a campaign that outstripped the Clinton fund-raising machine last month.
While most expect the former secretary of state to ultimately win the Democratic nomination, she faces a much tougher battle than once thought as Mr Sanders whips up passionate support among young voters with a grassroots campaign.
Mrs Clinton sought to dilute some of Mr Sanders' support among left-leaning voters by presenting herself as a battle-hardened progressive who can get things done to improve the lives of struggling Americans. "Senator Sanders and I share some very big progressive goals," the former first lady said. "But the numbers just don't add up from what Senator Sanders has been proposing."
Mr Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist - unique for a US presidential candidate - hammered home his opposition to what he believes is the corrosive power of Wall Street on American democracy. He insisted that Mrs Clinton cannot claim to be both a moderate and a progressive, criticising her for raising US$15 million (S$21 million) from Wall Street - prompting some of the night's sharpest exchanges.
"Enough is enough. If you've got something to say, say it directly," Mrs Clinton told Mr Sanders after listing her record on racial injustice, children's rights and the fight to widen American access to healthcare.
Mr Sanders hit back by insisting that billionaires undermine democracy in the US by spending unlimited funds on election campaigns.
He presented himself throughout as a fresh voice calling for a political revolution to raise the voice of working Americans and young voters in the political process, offering universal healthcare and tuition-free public colleges. Asked why he thinks he can deliver his sweeping reforms, he quipped: "I haven't quite run for president before," to cheers, alluding to Mrs Clinton's previous bid for the White House.
Mrs Clinton, meanwhile, swiped at Mr Sanders as a "self-proclaimed gatekeeper for progressivism" and got cheers for saying only he could portray a woman trying to become the first female president as an establishment figure.
Mr Sanders claimed a moral victory in Monday's Iowa vote, winning 49.6 per cent to Mrs Clinton's 49.8 per cent in the first vote of the US election cycle, having trailed as a distant second only months earlier.
Mrs Clinton, 68, is now hoping to shave his New Hampshire lead and regain some momentum going into friendlier territory later this month in Nevada and South Carolina.
She acknowledges she faces an uphill battle in winning over younger voters, who polls show identify strongly with Mr Sanders' poverty-busting agenda and offer of free tuition at public colleges.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal/ Marist poll released hours before the debate gave Mr Sanders 58 per cent support among likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire and Mrs Clinton 38 per cent.
Mr Sanders leads the former first lady among voters aged 18 to 29 by 76 per cent to 24 per cent, the poll found.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES