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Democratic debate

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders spar on guns, health care

From left: Democratic presidential candidates Martin O'Malley, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders during Sunday’s debate in Charleston, S.C.
From left: Democratic presidential candidates Martin O'Malley, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders during Sunday’s debate in Charleston, S.C.(Travis Dove/New York Times)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, embracing the presidency of Barack Obama, positioned herself during Sunday’s Democratic debate as the candidate most capable of advancing his work on health care, taxes, and foreign policy while chief adversary Bernie Sanders fervently called for more revolutionary changes.

Clinton touted her long resume in national politics, citing her tenure as secretary of state and her long-running battles on such issues as expanding health care or limiting the influence of the NRA.

“We need a president who can do all aspects of the job,” said Clinton.

Sanders, in contrast, talked about a movement that would change the very nature of politics in America. “This campaign is about a political revolution, not only to elect a president but to transform this country,” said the Vermont senator, who refers to himself as a democratic socialist.

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The only Republican candidate mentioned during the two-hour NBC News/YouTube debate was real estate billionaire Donald Trump, underscoring his dominant standing in the Republican field.

The debate was the last one before caucusgoers cast the first votes of the presidential contest in Iowa in 14 days.

The exchanges were almost entirely focused on policy differences among the contenders and stayed away from the personal attacks that have roiled Republicans.

Also on stage was former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who almost didn’t qualify for the debate because of his low standing in the polls. He struggled to make an impact while on stage. “Ten seconds!” he pleaded with moderators at one point, who ignored him and went to commercial break. “Great question,” he said of one posed to Clinton, not him.

In recent weeks, polls in early states show the contest is a toss-up between Clinton and Sanders. That has left some establishment Democrats worrying that the insurgent Sanders could bruise Clinton and put the party into the same disarray that the GOP now faces.

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Clinton strategists are confident that she could win the nomination even if she loses the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Such a slow start, however, could generate a full-scale panic among party leaders who are fearful that Sanders could never win in a general election.

The sharpest exchanges in the debate focused on health care policy and gun control.

“He has voted with the NRA, with the gun lobby,” Clinton said of Sanders. “He voted to let guns go on to Amtrak, guns to go into national parks. Let’s not forget what this is about.”

Sanders was emphatic is his counter.

“I think what Secretary Clinton says is very disingenuous. I have a D-minus from the NRA,” Sanders retorted, while noting that as a senator from a rural state with gun owners he could be a uniting force in the national debate.

Clinton’s campaign signaled that they would home in on Sanders’ gun control record. The debate location proved a reminder: The stage is just a half-block from the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where in June a gunman massacred nine worshipers after praying with them.

The two disagree about a wrinkle in the law that has been highly publicized since the shooting: the so-called Charleston loophole. Clinton wants to change the law so gun purchases can’t be made without a background check. Sanders voted to allow gun sales to go forward if the FBI can’t complete the paperwork within three days.

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The suspect in the Charleston killings legally bought a .45-caliber Glock handgun despite a disqualifying drug offense because his background check couldn’t be finished in time.

Clinton’s campaign has also been critical of Sanders’ 2005 vote to shield gun manufacturers from liability when their products are used in crimes. Over the weekend Sanders reversed his position and pledged to support legislation pending in the Senate that would allow gun manufacturers to be sued if their weapons are used in mass shootings.

“There is no other industry in America that was given the total pass than the gun makers and dealers were,” Clinton said.

Two hours before the debate, Sanders released the long-awaited details of his universal health care plan, an attempt to neutralize a line of attack from Clinton that he’s afraid to release the plan’s price tag.

The proposal would be funded via a mixture of tax hikes that would cost the typical American families about $500 a year, according to the campaign’s estimate. The costs would be offset by savings, according to Sanders, since insurance premiums would no longer be necessary.

Clinton said the plan would reopen the ferocious debate over health care and dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which Democrats embrace. “We are finally on a path to universal health coverage,” Clinton said. “I don’t want to see us start over again.”

Sanders rejected assertions made by Clinton’s campaign that he seeks to destroy the Affordable Care Act.

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“That is nonsense,’’ said Sanders, adding that his comprehensive program would “finally provide in this country health care for every man, woman and child as a right.”

Another point of friction came up over whether the health care plan and several other proposal floated by the candidates would result in higher taxes for the middle class.

“There are serious questions about how we’re going to pay for what we want to see our country do,” Clinton said. “I’m the only candidate here who has said I will not raise taxes on the middle class.”

Sanders called her attacks untrue. He conceded that his health care plan would raise taxes on some middle income earners, but he said that any increases in taxes would be offset by savings in health care payments.

“What we’ve got to acknowledge is that we are doing away with private health insurance premiums,” he said. “Instead of paying $10,000 to Blue Cross Blue Shield — yes, they would be paying more in taxes. But they would be saving. . . . It’s a pretty good deal.”

Sanders took a much sharper tone with Clinton on Wall Street, questioning whether she would be able to enact real reform given the tens million of dollars she’s received from banks in campaign donations and speaking fees.

“I don’t take money from big banks,” Sanders said. “I don’t take speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.” Clinton has taken more than a million dollars in speaking fees since banks since she left her post as secretary of state.

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The Democratic candidates have, for the most part, stayed away from personal attacks, but nettling issues linger on the peripheries for Clinton. But fueled by attacks from Trump, there’s been more attention on Bill Clinton’s alleged extramarital affairs.

Sanders declined to engage when asked about Bill Clinton’s relations with women who are not his wife. “That question annoys me,” Sanders said. He added that despite pressure from advisers to attack Clinton, he’s wants to run an “issue-oriented campaign.”

“Yes his behavior was deplorable,” Sanders said of Bill Clinton’s affairs. “I’m going to debate Secretary Clinton and Martin O’Malley on the issues that matter, not Bill Clinton’s personal behavior.”

Hillary Clinton was most at ease when asked about foreign policy. She said her relationship with President Vladimir Putin of Russia is “interesting.”

And, in what might become her approach if she’s the nominee, she offered advice about how to deal with him.

“He’s somebody you must stand up to,” Clinton said. “Like many bullies, he’ll take as much as he can.’’

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Matt Viser of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AnnieLinskey.