— -- With two weeks until the first-in-the-nation contest in Iowa, the Democratic candidates for president squared off in South Carolina.
Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is chipping away at Hillary Clinton's national front-runner status by pulling even in early states. Clinton has responded by hitting Sanders over his positions on gun policy and health care on the trail.
The sparks flew on the debate stage Sunday night. Here are five things we learned:
1. Hillary Clinton Embraces President Obama – Big Time
President Obama is popular among Democratic primary voters, and Hillary Clinton seemed at times to go out of her way to link herself to his policies and leadership.
“Thank goodness President Obama vetoed” a repeal attempt passed by Republicans, she added.
She defended him by saying that “the comments that Sen. Sanders has made that don't just affect me; I can take that. But he's criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street,” prompting Sanders to backtrack and also praise the sitting president.
2. Hillary Clinton Shores Up Support Among Minority Voters
While Bernie Sanders performs well among younger white voters in polling, Hillary Clinton is shoring up her support among nonwhites and older voters.
“Very often, black men are arrested, convicted and incarcerated for offenses that do not lead to the same results for white men,” she said during an answer on criminal justice reform.
And in a closing answer on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Clinton said: “I'll tell you what. If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would have been action.”
3. Hillary Clinton’s South Carolina Firewall
Hillary Clinton may be leading most national polls by more than 20 percentage points, but she’s locked in a tight battle to win the two crucial first states of Iowa and New Hampshire, where Sanders of neighboring Vermont holds a slim lead.
From there, the candidates will go to Nevada and South Carolina, which will serve as a firewall in case the former secretary of state drops both early states. Clinton’s strength with nonwhite voters (see No. 2) is likely to stop the potential bleeding of her campaign.
4. Health Care Joins Gun Control Front and Center
A debate over health care is now grabbing a share of the spotlight in the Democratic race.
But while Clinton is attacking Sanders from the left on gun policy, it’s Sanders who holds the more liberal positions on health care, which is shaping up to be another crucial issue in the primary race.
Sanders called the attack that he wanted to repeal Obamacare “nonsense,” adding “we are going to move on top of that to a Medicare-for-all system."
But Clinton rebutted: "I don’t want to start over again with a contentious debate.”
5. What Is Bill Clinton’s Role In the 2016 Campaign?
As Bill Clinton takes to the trail for his wife, his presence was also felt on the debate stage.
Hillary Clinton said the former president would play a role in giving economic advice, at least informally. “Well, it'll start at the kitchen table, we'll see how it goes from there,” she said.
But Sanders expressed frustration over having to address Bill Clinton’s previous indiscretions.
“I'm going to debate Secretary Clinton and Governor O'Malley on the issues facing the American people, not Bill Clinton's personal behavior,” Sanders said when asked to explain his comment that Clinton’s past actions were “disgraceful.”
Bill Clinton also kept his distance from Sanders’ previous comment, telling reporters at a debate-watch party in South Carolina Sunday night, “It never crossed my mind and it still hasn’t.”