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Democratic rivals clash as primary polls near

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has gone on the offensive against rival Hillary Clinton in the most contentious presidential debates so far. The matchup was held before voting begins in New Hampshire and Iowa.

In their last televised debate before Iowa's caucuses launch the nominating race on February 1, Clinton raised questions about Sanders' positions on Wall Street reform, health care and gun control.

But Sanders - a

self-styled democratic socialist

- pushed back at every turn by painting Clinton as a defender of the status quo who accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from Wall Street backers as a former secretary of state.

"I don't take money from big banks. I don't get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs," the US senator from Vermont said, adding: "I have huge doubts when people receive money from Wall Street."

Rising poll numbers in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire have shown Sanders pulling even or edging ahead of Clinton. The former secretary of state tried to undercut Sanders' support among supporters of President Barack Obama, who remains a popular figure in the Democratic Party.

"He's criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street. And President Obama has led our country out of the Great Recession," she said. "Senator Sanders called him weak, disappointing; he even in 2011 publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama."

Clinton, Sanders trade barbs over health care

Clinton took Sanders to task for his "Medicare-for-all" plan that was announced just hours before the debate, after she had criticized Sanders for refusing to explain how he would pay for the proposal.

She claimed Sanders' health care plan would undermine Obama's signature Affordable Care Act at a time when

Republican legislators were still trying to repeal and replace it.

"I have to say I'm not sure whether we're talking about the plan you introduced tonight or the plan you introduced nine times over 20 years," Clinton told Sanders. "But the fact is we have the Affordable Care Act. ... We have already seen 19 million Americans get insurance."

Sanders said he wanted to build on the Obama law by making health insurance more affordable.

"Nobody is tearing this up," he said, referring to the program popularly known as Obamacare. "We're moving forward."

The debate was held across the street from the Charleston church where a white gunman killed nine black worshippers last June. Clinton spoke of the massacre while accusing her rival of being weak on gun control.

Sanders defended his record, saying he has a strong record on trying to prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands and standing up to the politically powerful National Rifle Association.

Polls close in early primary states

Once dismissed as a long shot, Sanders is now a statistical tie with Clinton in recent polls in Iowa, whose caucuses are the first contest in the race to pick a nominee for the November election. He also leads Clinton in the next state to vote, New Hampshire, on February 9, according to polls of likely voters.

After those two states, the race moves to Nevada and South Carolina. Eleven US states then will vote on March 1's so-called "Super Tuesday."

Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, who trails a distant third in polls, was often a virtual spectator, although he joined Sanders in criticizing Clinton's ties to the financial industry.

jar/rc (Reuters, AP)

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