With the Democratic presidential contest in Iowa a toss-up less than a week from the first vote of 2016, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on Monday took starkly different approaches to pursuing wavering voters in their final appearance on the same stage.
An uncharacteristically confrontational Sanders, taking umbrage at the barrage of attacks from his rival's campaign, launched into a spirited critique of Clinton's career. Clinton responded later with little of the feistiness she has shown recently on the campaign trail, instead reverting to her earlier posture of confident front-runner, emphasizing her qualifications for the office and trying to avoid engaging her rivals.
Except Clinton is no longer the clear front-runner in Iowa. She is locked in an unexpectedly tight race with the self-described democratic socialist senator from Vermont, scrambling to avoid an early loss that would significantly complicate her path to the nomination.
The town hall Monday night at Drake University in Des Moines, hosted by CNN, was an opportunity for the candidates to make what amounted to closing arguments. Though the rivals did not appear onstage together — each separately fielded questions from audience members and CNN moderator Chris Cuomo — the stakes were as high as those of a presidential debate.
Sanders appeared first, and he would eventually stray from his usual talking points about income inequality and Wall Street greed to rise from his seat and launch into a vigorous rebuke of the Clinton campaign's argument that she is substantially more qualified to serve as commander in chief.
"This calls for a standing-up response," Sanders said after Cuomo asked his reaction to a Clinton campaign advertisement that implied she was the only candidate in the race prepared for the job. "Hillary Clinton has devoted her life to public service. And I have tried, as I hope you all know, not to run a negative campaign."
But Sanders offered a litany of decisions that Clinton has made in her career that Sanders said were bad, starting with her vote in the Senate to go to war with Iraq.
"The truth is, the most significant vote and issue, regarding foreign policy, that we have seen in this country in modern history was the vote on the war in Iraq," he said. "That's the fact. I voted against the war in Iraq."
He then moved on to climate change, noting that Clinton avoided taking a position against the Keystone XL oil pipeline until months into the campaign, by which time Sanders had spent years fighting the proposal reviled by environmentalists that would ship oil from the Canadian tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
"On Day One, I said the Keystone pipeline is a dumb idea," he said.
He also noted that Clinton stayed on the sidelines for most of the fight against the Pacific trade deal opposed by organized labor.
Sanders concluded, "Yeah, I do think I have the background and the judgment to take this very difficult job."
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who continues to struggle with weak voter support, appeared after Sanders. O'Malley said not to count him out. "None of the pollsters back East can tell you how it's going to work out," he said.
Clinton's mere appearance at the town hall was a reminder that little about this race has been going as planned for her. When Clinton's rivals protested a primary debate schedule set by the Democratic National Committee designed for minimal viewership, the front-runner had no complaints; it wasn't in her interest to give her little-known rivals more attention.
The days of her coasting with a comfortable lead disappeared weeks ago as the huge turnout at Sanders rallies began growing into durable support.
The Sanders campaign, which got a late start in Iowa and is not as well-financed as the Clinton operation, is eager to harness the enthusiasm the senator has generated into turnout at the caucuses. It is a tricky endeavor. Caucuses are time-consuming and confusing, and could prove daunting for the new voters drawn to Sanders.
A victory in Iowa has the potential to give his candidacy national momentum, particularly as Sanders is now leading in New Hampshire. Although the former secretary of State continues to enjoy a comfortable lead nationally, early wins for Sanders would force Clinton into the kind of bruising race for the nomination she has spent months working to avoid.
The town hall took place as President Obama's shadow over the race continues to grow. Sanders is increasingly fashioning himself as the kind of insurgent Obama was during his surprise caucus victory in Iowa in 2008. Clinton's talking points of late have consistently turned to her ties to the Obama White House, her eagerness to preserve its legacy and warnings that Sanders would unravel some of its landmark achievements.
This week, Obama, who pledged to remain neutral, made some candid remarks about the race that were welcomed by the Clinton campaign. In an interview with Politico, he called Clinton a "good, smart, tough" person up against a "bright, shiny" new alternative who is less tested.
Clinton delighted in talking about the remarks.
"He knows how hard the job is," Clinton said.
But Clinton bristled at a questioner who brought up Vice President Joe Biden's recent comment that she is a "newcomer" to the issue of income inequality, saying inequality goes beyond just economics.
"I have a really long history of taking care of all kinds of inequality," she said.
She used the question to pivot into talking about the landmark speech on women's rights she gave in Beijing. In fact, Clinton spent much of her time onstage reminding voters of the weighty policy decisions she has been involved in, including helping to lay the groundwork that ultimately resulted in the Iran nuclear deal and negotiating cease-fires between Israel and Hamas.
Clinton also found herself asked by a younger voter to explain why so many people of his generation are unenthusiastic about her and find her dishonest. Clinton attributed it to all the attacks she has endured during her decades in politics.
"People have thrown all kinds of things at me," she said. "You have to say to yourself, why are they throwing all of that? Well, I'll tell you why. Because I've been on the front lines of change and progress since I was your age."
Recently, the one issue that Sanders and Clinton have spent a lot of time arguing over is gun safety. Clinton has repeatedly accused Sanders of too often siding with the gun industry.
When the topic came up Monday night, Sanders suggested Clinton's views on gun control used to be much more conservative, pointing out that in the 2008 presidential campaign, her then-opponent Barack Obama referred to her as "Annie Oakley" for saying there shouldn't be blanket rules about how and to whom guns were sold.
One area that Clinton and Sanders did find agreement on was the quality of his new campaign advertisement. The montage of inspirational scenes featuring Sanders supporters is set to the Simon & Garfunkel tune "America." Clinton called it "fabulous."
But she cautioned, "Look, you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.... I believe that I'm the better person to be the nominee."
Halper reported from Washington and Megerian from Des Moines. Times staff reporter Kate Linthicum contributed to this report.
MORE ON THE DEMOCRATIC TOWNHALL