CHARLESTON, S.C., Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., went head to head Sunday while Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley remained in the shadows during the last Democratic presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses.
Much of the debate in Charleston, S.C., spurred Sanders and Clinton to grapple with one another. Both candidates were repeatedly ask to respond to one another's policies, as well as attacks they may have made against each other in recent weeks. As the two sparred, O'Malley was mostly lost in the fray.
Sanders was asked to answer for his reversed position on immunity from prosecution for gun manufacturers, which he had previously voted against in 2005. He vowed the position was not a reversal and called Clinton's recent attacks on his gun control record "disingenuous."
Sanders touted his D minus voting rating from the National Rifle Association.
Clinton responded by doubling down her attacks, calling out Sanders' vote against the Brady Bill, which mandated federal background checks for gun purchasers. O'Malley called both candidates inconsistent on the matter, and vowed he was the only one not to change sides on the issue.
Last year's mass shooting at Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal took place just across the street from the Gaillard Center where Sunday's debate took place. Citing the massacre, and the police shooting of unarmed Walter Scott, the topic of the evening shifted to racial injustice against African Americans.
Last week, Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. -- the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus -- endorsed Clinton. Sanders was asked what losing that endorsement meant for him.
Criminal justice reform
O'Malley -- the former mayor of Baltimore, Md. -- was asked about racial inequality. He responded by citing the creation of a civilian review board in Baltimore, the decriminalization of marijuana possession and his repeal of the death penalty as governor of Maryland.
Sanders called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate all incidents of police-involved shootings. He also called for demilitarizing police departments, and making departments better reflect their communities.
Candidates were asked how they would address America's heroin epidemic. Clinton called for first responders to carry the overdose rescue drug Narcan, and for America to treat drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a crime epidemic. Sanders agreed, adding that drug companies should bear some responsibility for spurring the heroin epidemic. He also called for improved access to mental health treatment.
NBC cut to commercial before O'Malley could respond to the question.
Clinton was asked about her recent allegations that Sanders wants to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. She held her ground, saying that Sanders wanted to undo decades of work and had no way to pay for his plan of universal healthcare.
"We're not going to tear up the ACA, I helped write it. We're going to build on it," Sanders retorted.
He said his plan -- introduced just hours before the debate -- would fix problems the Affordable Care Act could not. Clinton shot back, saying Sanders' plan was shot down nine times during his time in the Senate.
O'Malley interjected, citing Maryland's use of the "all-payer" rate-regulation model as a way of building on the Affordable Care Act. Clinton lauded the model, but then shifted to attacking Sanders once more, saying that starting the debate over healthcare reform from square one would set the nation back.
Sanders said the reluctance to move to a universal system was due to pressure from the private insurance industry. Clinton said she had plenty of experience standing up to health insurance companies. She also cited the failure of President Barack Obama's proposed "public option," as evidence that voters did not want universal healthcare.
Sanders said he believes American voters are already changing their habits in response to climate change. He slammed Republicans for denying climate change, saying the denial was due to campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry. He also took aim a Republican front-runner Donald Trump for once saying climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese.
O'Malley joined in on mocking Republicans. He went on to endorse his climate change plan.
Wall Street reform
Sanders elaborated on his aggressive Wall Street strategy of breaking up banks deemed too big to fail. He distinguished his plan from Clinton's, taking a jab at one of her top donors -- Goldman Sachs.
Clinton responded by accusing Sanders of not supporting Obama on the Dodd-Frank Act. Sanders said he supported Obama in 2008 and 2012. Clinton retorted that big banks did not want her to be president because of the reforms she has in mind.
O'Malley called for re-instituting Glass-Steagall, which imposed a regulatory separation between banking and high-risk investing. It was partially repealed in 1999, a moved blamed by many for the financial crisis in 2008.
O'Malley slammed Clinton for her relationship with Wall Street. Clinton responded saying Dodd Frank already allowed the government the authority to break up banks -- a provision Sanders' plan would take advantage of. O'Malley pointed out that authority has never been used.
Clinton accused Sanders of voting to deregulate the financial sector. "We're at least having a vigorous debate about reigning in Wall Street, the Republicans want to give them more power and repeal Dodd-Frank," she said.
On how he would pay for some of his plans, Sanders called for a tax on Wall Street speculation, among other taxes upon the wealthy and on Wall Street. Clinton said she was the only candidate to promise not to raise taxes on the middle class, and called for taxes on the wealthy to pay for some of her proposals.
The moderators asked Sanders to go into more detail on his healthcare policy, citing his earlier promise to only raise taxes on the middle class to pay for family leave. Sanders said his plan would eliminate private insurance premiums, and the trade-off would save money for middle class families.
Sanders called for normalizing relations with Iran in light of implementation of the Iran nuclear deal.
Clinton and Sanders both praised the deal. Clinton took credit for imposing sanctions against Iran, which she argued compelled them to come to the negotiating table. Clinton said the United States should proceed with caution when it comes to Iran.
Clinton rejected the idea of deploying ground troops in Syria to combat the Islamic State. She instead supported continued airstrikes, as well as support for the Iraqi and Kurdish armed forces.
Sanders went a step further, slamming Republicans who call for ground troops in Syria. He said the United States should have learned from the Iraq war.
O'Malley supported Obama's current strategy in the Middle East, which Sanders and Clinton both mirrored. O'Malley also knocked Republicans for using the term "boots on the ground," saying it was dehumanizing to American troops.
Sanders said the Islamic State was created by the war in Iraq, and that the United States did not do enough to stabilize the region after the downfall of Saddam Hussein. He called for Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar to foot the bill for combating the Islamic State. In order of priority, he said the destruction of the Islamic State came first, and then deposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
O'Malley said the United States does not know enough to understand the ramifications of regime change. He called for an increased investment in foreign intelligence.
O'Malley said the federal government should get a warrant to compel tech companies to share users' data in an investigation. He defended personal privacy in the digital age, calling for the judicial system to catch up to cybersecurity issues.
Sanders echoed sentiments that public policy has not caught up with the digital age. He said Silicon Valley should work with the federal government to target online recruitment from the Islamic State.
Clinton said the key to combating lone wolf extremists was to engage Muslim Americans. She slammed anti-Muslim rhetoric by conservative politicians. O'Malley echoed those calls, calling Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump a fascist. He said if Trump wants to start a registry of Muslim Americans, that he could put O'Malley's name first.
Sanders called for a shift in defense priorities, saying much of America's defense spending focused on the "old Cold War."
Clinton's family issues
Clinton said she would consult with her husband on economic policy. Sanders fired back: "If you have an administration stacked with Wall Street appointees, you're not going to accomplish much."
Sanders was asked about his previous response to Bill Clinton's extramarital affairs. "That question annoys me," Sanders retorted, insisting he wanted to run an issues-oriented campaign.
"I'm going to debate Secretary Clinton and Gov. O'Malley on the issues facing this country, not on Bill Clinton's personal behavior," he said.
On what there was no time for
Candidates were asked what issues they did not get a chance to discuss. O'Malley said he wanted to discuss immigration reform, specifically immigration detention centers in the United States.
Sanders called for an end to super PACs and Citizens United. He said doing so would bring more middle class and young people into the political process.