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Democratic Race Transforms Into Battle Of Sharp Contrasts


On the Democratic side, the nice, polite race for the presidential nomination changed this week into more of a battle. NPR's Tamara Keith reports that with voting just over two weeks away, the frontrunners - Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - are making what you might call their closing arguments.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In television interviews and press releases, tweets and hastily arranged conference calls, the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are doing battle over policy with a hint of something more fundamental about who the candidates are and what they stand for. Take this ad released today by Bernie Sanders contrasting himself with Hillary Clinton on Wall Street reform.


BERNIE SANDERS: There are two Democratic visions for regulating Wall Street. One says it's OK to take millions from big banks and then tell them what to do. My plan - break up the big banks.

KEITH: This follows a newly sharpened stump speech and a whole series of ads from Hillary Clinton this week.


HILLARY CLINTON: It's time to pick a side. Either we stand with the gun lobby, or we join the president and stand up to them.

KEITH: In addition to guns, Clinton and her surrogates are also going after Sanders on taxes and how he'd pay for his Medicare For All plan. This, as a Des Moines Register Bloomberg Iowa poll out today, shows Clinton up in Iowa by only two pints, a major erosion of her lead in just a month. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Sanders is pulling firmly ahead. At the Brown and Black Forum on Fusion Television on Monday, Sanders told moderator Jorge Ramos, this may well explain a change in the intensity of the rhetoric.


JORGE RAMOS: Have you noticed lately that she's been getting more aggressive with you?


RAMOS: Why is that?


SANDERS: I don't know. It could be...

RAMOS: You tell me.

SANDERS: It could be that the inevitable candidate for the Democratic nomination may not be so inevitable today.

KEITH: And maybe it was inevitable that these two candidates would start calling each other out by name in political speeches, attacking each other's policy positions and making sure voters know their differences. As Clinton put it in a speech on Tuesday...


CLINTON: We're getting into that period before the caucus that I kind of call the let's-get-real period.

KEITH: Clinton's closing argument is a combination of electability, continuing President Obama's legacy and job readiness.


CLINTON: This is a very consequential caucus because it will set the tone for whether or not we're going to be able to hold onto the White House, build on the progress we've made or watch it get ripped away.

KEITH: For Sanders, the argument is, why settle for the Washington establishment and policy proposals that only go halfway? Join the political revolution, and Bernie Sanders really can win. His campaign manager, Jeff Weaver...

JEFF WEAVER: It's a false case that she's the most electable candidate in the general election. Polls are coming out which show the exact opposite. He did far better against every Republican, right? And in some cases, he was winning against Republicans against whom she was losing.

KEITH: But there are risks in the new tone the campaign has taken on, especially for Sanders, says Bill Burton, who worked on President Obama's campaign in 2008 and is now a Democratic consultant at SKDKnickerbocker.

BILL BURTON: I mean, they made such a big deal out of how they weren't going to attack Hillary Clinton at the beginning of this campaign. So to get to the end and see that the finish line is in sight and suddenly lose sight of that principle - it's not great for the brand.

KEITH: Clinton's brand, for better or for worse, he says, is that of a political creature not afraid to scrap with an opponent, and that's exactly what she's doing now. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.