Sharp exchanges expected in fourth Democratic primary debate

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speak to a crowd at the Jim Clyburn Fish Fry, on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, at the Charleston Visitor Center in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Ready to rumble, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders headed into Sunday’s presidential debate eager to tangle over gun control, health care and other issues in the last Democratic matchup before voting begins in two weeks and with polls showing the race tightening.

With Sanders, a Vermont senator, gaining on longtime front-runner Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, the debate is likely to mark a sharp departure from the relatively civil exchanges that defined the past three face-offs.

The debate site is just blocks from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where nine parishioners were killed during Bible study in a mass shooting last summer. Gun control has emerged as a central theme in the race, with Clinton citing the issue as one of the major differences between the candidates.

PHOTO GALLERY: Decision 2016: #DemDebate in Charleston

On Saturday night, Sanders announced his support for legislation that would reverse a 2005 law he had supported that granted gun manufacturers legal immunity.

His changed position came in a statement after days of criticism from Clinton, who had attempted to use his previous vote to undercut his liberal image.

Clinton immediately cast the latest move as a “flip-flop.” Sanders said he backed the 2005 law in part because of provisions that require child safety locks on guns and ban armor-piercing ammunition. He also said he supported immunity then in part to protect small shops in his home state of Vermont.

“There were things in it that I did not like, and I was willing to rethink,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” ”We have rethought.”

On Sunday, just hours before the debate Sanders released details of his plan for a sweeping single-payer universal health care system, an idea that Clinton has argued would undercut President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. Sanders would pay for his plan through increased payroll taxes, a health care premium and a top marginal income tax rate of more than 50 percent.

Clinton suggested earlier Sunday that Sanders would need to increase taxes on the middle class.

“It would be a mistake to really thrust our country into another contentious national debate about how we’re going to provide quality, affordable health care to everybody,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

In an interview with Time magazine on Sunday, Sanders said that his plan would ultimately save taxpayers money by lowering their health care bills.

Sanders, meanwhile, has questioned Clinton’s liberal credentials, casting the former secretary of state as a Wall Street ally who will switch her positions for political gain. But he’s vowed to forgo negative attacks, a position that may be hard to maintain as the race intensifies.

Both candidates are competing for black voters in South Carolina, which hosts the fourth primary contest. At a party fundraising dinner Saturday night, they vowed to change criminal justice policies.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who’s been stuck in single digits since announcing his campaign last spring, also will be on the debate stage. The evening offers perhaps his last chance to improve his standing in the race.

The debate was sponsored by NBC, YouTube and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.

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