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Clinton Backs Obamacare and Appeals to Black Voters in Final Debate Before Primaries

The Democratic candidates discuss the value of black lives, health care and guns as Clinton fights off Sanders’ surge in the polls. 

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Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders field questions from the moderators during the Democratic Debate on Jan. 17, 2016, in Charleston, S.C. 

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton defended President Barack Obama’s political legacy and appealed to African-American voters during last night’s debate in Charleston, S.C., sponsored in part by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.  

She called out systemic racism when asked whether black lives are seen as “cheap.”

“It’s been heartbreaking and increasingly outraging to see stories of young men like Walter Scott who have been killed by police officers,” Clinton stated. “There needs to be a concerted effort to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system.”

NBC news anchor Lester Holt pointed out to Clinton’s main rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), that he lags behind her significantly in the competition for the black vote. Sanders responded that African-American voters are getting to know him and will eventually support his campaign.

Clinton holds a 25-point lead over Sanders in the national polls. But he’s closing the gap in the first two primary contests: Iowa and New Hampshire.

With Sanders rising in the polls, some political strategists say Clinton must reinforce her support among black voters in South Carolina. A win in the Palmetto State could prevent a disaster if Sanders upsets the front-runner in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.  

Sanders and Clinton sparred onstage over health care, arguably President Obama’s major political legacy. The Vermont senator unveiled his Medicare-for-All (pdf) universal health care plan just hours before the debate.

In appealing to the Democratic base, he said that guaranteeing universal health care has been a goal for the party since President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He added that Obama’s Affordable Care Act “was a critically important step toward the goal.”

Clinton embraced the achievements of Obamacare and pounced on Sanders’ plan, saying that it would increase taxes on the middle class and reignite the legislative war over health care.  

“To tear it [Obamacare] up and start over again, pushing our country back into that kind of a contentious debate, I think is the wrong direction,” she said.

The debate took place near the Charleston church where a white supremacist gunned down nine black people holding a Bible study last year.

It was against that backdrop that the two main candidates debated gun control. Clinton attempted to draw a distinction from Sanders by highlighting her rival’s record on the issue. She said that Sanders voted “numerous times” in favor of positions held by the National Rifle Association and gun manufactures.   

Sanders responded that the NRA has given him a D-minus rating. Pointing out that he represents a state where many residents own guns and are avid hunters, the Vermont senator denied that he’s soft on gun control.

“I think that Secretary Clinton knows that what she says is very disingenuous,” he said.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who lags in the polls behind Clinton and Sanders, struggled to insert himself into the debate. It was largely a two-candidate event.