Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders supports women marchers with tweet Five takeaways from Trump's inauguration Trump takes reins of divided nation MORE went on the attack Monday night while Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton thanks protesters ahead of women’s march Pro-choice feminists can't take women's rights hostage Thousands expected for women's march Saturday MORE largely played it safe at the final Democratic forum before next week’s hotly contested Iowa caucuses.
All three Democrats running for president took the stage in Des Moines to make their final pitch to voters in the Hawkeye State.
Sanders entered Monday night with considerable energy behind his campaign. Polling in Iowa has been volatile, but several recent surveys show he’s surpassed Clinton in the Hawkeye State.
He sought to keep that momentum rolling by going for the knockout blow against Clinton.
In his most dramatic moment of the night, Sanders got to his feet after viewing a Clinton campaign advertisement that cast her as the most prepared to be commander in chief. Standing in front of the crowd, Sanders methodically ticked through issues that he said called the campaign ad’s conclusion into question.
Sanders pilloried the former secretary of State for voting to authorize the war in Iraq, calling it “the most significant vote and issue regarding foreign policy that we have seen in this country in modern history.”
He framed himself as the only candidate who has stood up to Wall Street and pushed for regulatory reform.
“See where Hillary Clinton was on that issue,” Sanders said.
He noted that on two issues — the Keystone Pipeline and Trans-Pacific Partnership — he has long held the opposition, while in both cases it took Clinton months to come around.
And he blasted Clinton for making guns an issue on the campaign trail, noting that in her losing effort to then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaCelebrity chef: Trump inauguration copied my cake for Obama Five takeaways from Trump's inauguration Michael Reagan: Trump's fighting words rattle Washington MORE (D-Ill.) in 2007, she attacked him for being too strong on the issue of gun control, provoking the now-president to disparage her as “Annie Oakley.”
“Today Hillary Clinton is running a lot of ads on gun issues,” Sanders said. “Interestingly enough, she’s running most of them in New Hampshire where she thinks it will work — not so many of them in rural Iowa. You can form your own judgment as to why that’s the case.”
The sum total of the arguments was meant to call Clinton’s judgment into question, as the former secretary of State has been pitching herself as a level-headed statesman and a pragmatist who can get things done.
“Experience is important, but judgment is also important,” Sanders said.
But Sanders did not leave unscathed. He provided fodder for his rival as he sought to explain his “Medicare for All” healthcare plan, at one point turning to the camera to declare: “We will raise taxes, yes we will.”
Clinton allies pounced on the remark over Twitter, which could easily be used in a campaign attack ad.
For her part, Clinton was high energy on Monday night, but she largely steered clear of confronting Sanders directly. She barely uttered his name throughout the course of the evening and at times praised him.
After Clinton was shown a video of a Sanders campaign ad put to a Simon and Garfunkel tune, she smiled broadly and said: “I think that’s great.”
Still, Clinton took a side-swipe at Sanders, saying that a succesful candidate must “campaign in poetry and govern in prose.”
“I applaud that,” she said. “I love the feeling, the energy. I respect him greatly and what he’s done in this campaign. But I believe I’m the better person to be the Democratic nominee and president of the United States."
The highest stakes moments for Clinton came as she had to engage with voters on the twin issues that have been the biggest liabilities for her campaign — her lack of trustworthiness and her use of a private email server as secretary of State.
At one point, a young man confronted Clinton directly, saying that he doesn’t see the same enthusiasm from young people for her that he sees for Sanders.
“In fact, I’ve heard quite a few people my age that think you’re dishonest,” said the questioner, Taylor Gipple.
Clinton took the criticism in stride, saying that she’s not surprised to hear that many young people don’t trust her because she’s been under attack from Republicans for decades.
“If you’re new to politics, if it’s the first time you’ve really paid attention, you go, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all of this’ and say, ‘Why are they throwing all of that at her?' ” the former first lady responded. “I’ll tell you why — because I’ve been on the front lines of change and progress since I was your age. I’ve been fighting for kids and women and the people left out and left behind to help them make the most of their lives.”
Clinton refused to say that using a personal email account and server at State was an error because “nothing that I did was wrong.”
However, she conceded that she should have publicly explained the issue sooner and should have gotten out ahead of it before it snowballed on her.
"I had no intention of doing anything other than having a convenient way of communicating, and it turned out to be not so convenient," Clinton said, adding, “We've answered every question and we will continue to do so.”
Clinton had a couple of strong red meat moments. She basked in the glow of her successful Benghazi testimony and turned the spotlight on GOP front-runner Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWashington Post reporter compares DC rioters to Boston Tea Party Women's march reaches Antarctica Steinem: If Trump creates Muslim registry, we'll all register MORE as she fielded a question from a Muslim woman who is an Air Force veteran.
“One of the most distressing aspects of this campaign has been the language of the Republican candidates, particularly their front-runner, who denigrates different people,” Clinton said. “He’s cast a wide net — he started with Mexicans, and he’s currently on Muslims.”
“We cannot tolerate this and we must stand up and say every person in this country must be treated with respect,” she said.
For Martin O’Malley, Monday night might be his last night on the national stage in 2016.
He heads into the caucuses a distant third place, taking only about 5 percent support in the polls.
The primary drama surrounding him is what will become of his caucusgoers if they don’t hit the minimum threshold of 15 percent.
O’Mally struck a defiant tone on Monday night, urging his supporters not to bend in the face of long odds.
“My message to the O’Malley supporters across this state is this — hold strong at your caucus,” he said. “I know it’s a tough fight, but I’ve always been drawn to a tough fight.”