WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — Hillary Clinton has spent much of her presidential campaign looking past Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, focusing instead on Republicans and the November general election. No longer.
Three weeks before the lead-off Iowa caucuses and with polls suggesting a tightening race, she now is confronting the Vermont senator more directly, attempting to undermine his liberal credentials on gun control, health care and even the Wall Street regulations that have been the core of his insurgent campaign.
“It’s time for us to have the kind of spirited debate that you deserve us to have,” Clinton told voters on Monday. “We do have differences.”
After months with a comfortable edge in most Iowa polls, the former secretary of state finds herself battling an underdog rival in a state that has a history of rewarding anti-establishment campaigns — a situation that brings back echoes of her 2008 loss to Barack Obama.
While she has locked up the vast majority of support from party leaders and large donors, Sanders has captured the hearts of many in the Democratic base with his unapologetically liberal economic message.
An NBC/The Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released Sunday found Clinton with 48 percent and Sanders with 45 percent of likely caucus goers, representing a closer margin than past polls have indicated.
Sanders has maintained an edge in New Hampshire, which neighbors his home state of Vermont, making Iowa even more important for Clinton. The NBC/ Wall Street Journal/Marist poll showed Sanders with 50 percent and Clinton with 46 percent in that primary.
Clinton still holds a strong advantage among black and Latino voters who play a bigger role in the primaries in late February and March. But even if Clinton pulls out a win in Iowa, a narrow victory could set off alarms among Democrats about her strength against Sanders, who started the campaign as an obscure senator polling in the single digits.
Until now, Clinton has rarely mentioned Sanders by name at her campaign events, choosing instead to warn voters about the risks of electing a Republican. She has pointed to efforts by Republicans to repeal Obama’s signature health care law — the president vetoed the most recent try — as a sign of what could come if Democrats lose the White House.
But on Monday, she widened her health care critique to include Sanders, saying he would “rip up” the law and put power in the hands of states. Sanders said during a town hall meeting in Perry that large number of underinsured and as well as sky-high deductibles demand a better health care system, which he would seek through his single-payer, Medicare-for-all system.
Said Clinton: “I sure don’t want to turn over health care to Republican governors for heaven’s sake. I think it’s a risky deal.”
That’s not quite the situation: While states would have some leeway under Sanders’ plan, his office says they would not be allowed to opt out completely as Republican governors have done with the Medicaid expansion provided under the current health care law.
Clinton also announced a new plan that would impose a 4 percent fee on taxpayers making more than $5 million — an effort to match Sanders’ focus on income inequality.
And she talked about guns.
When Obama said last week he would not support a Democratic nominee who didn’t support “common-sense gun reform,” Clinton’s team quickly sought to turn it to their advantage, reminding voters that Sanders had backed legislation in 2005 that protected gun-makers from lawsuits.
Clinton — who’s done only a select few national interviews since announcing her campaign in April — called in to MSNBC’s “Hardball” on Friday night, invoking Sanders name six times during a short interview to criticize his vote on liability for gun-makers and his past opposition to the Brady Bill.
“Obama and I were both in the Senate and we voted no. Sen. Sanders voted yes. That is a big difference,” she said Monday.
Sanders, during a town hall meeting in Des Moines, expressed his own support for Obama’s use of executive actions to curb gun violence, suggesting little daylight between him and the president.
“What we need to do, bottom line, is to make sure that guns do not fall into the hands of people who should not have them,” he said.
Sanders has long targeted Iowa and New Hampshire as places where he could trip up Clinton, who started the campaign with a commanding lead in national polls but has watched her advantage in the early states diminish. The senator has also pointed to favorable polls showing him outperforming Clinton in hypothetical matchups against Republicans like Donald Trump.
Sanders has held multiple events in the state since Friday. Clinton was back in Iowa after a two-day trip to the state last week but has also held fundraisers in California and plans to keep a lower profile later this week with closed fundraisers in Washington and New York.
Former President Bill Clinton returns this week, accompanied on Saturday by the couple’s daughter, Chelsea, while four female senators — Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri — will campaign on Friday and Saturday.
Thomas reported from Washington.