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As Iowa Caucuses Near, Democrats Hear From Presidential Candidates


Just ahead of the Iowa caucuses, the Democratic candidates for president met in their last nationally televised forum before voting begins. This wasn't technically a debate, and they did not appear on stage at the same time. Still, voters did get to see them back-to-back on TV answering questions from a live audience. NPR's Tamara Keith was watching, and she joins us now. Good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: OK, so this was hosted by CNN, and the audience, I gather, was filled with Iowa Democrats.

KEITH: That's right, and some of them were even undecided or at least they claimed to be. They asked questions of the candidates that at times really pushed on their soft spots and weaknesses. This race in the final week or so has really, on the Democratic side, come down to a fight between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's pragmatism and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' idealism, and that contrast was really on display last night.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's hear what they had to say, starting, if you will, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

KEITH: Yes, several of the questions that he got really got at asking how he would accomplish the things that he's proposing. The first question was about how he defines Democratic socialism. And he was asked about his Medicare for all health care proposal. In the process of some follow-ups from the host Chris Cuomo, Bernie Sanders was asked about how he would pay for it, and he said something that seems like it will inevitably show up in a negative ad either in the primary or most definitely in the general election if he gets the nomination. And we have this audio courtesy of CNN.


BERNIE SANDERS: We will raise taxes. Yes, we will. But also let us be clear, Chris. We may raise taxes, but we are also going to eliminate private health insurance premiums for individuals and for businesses.

CHRIS CUOMO: All right, next question.

KEITH: And he insists that on net, people would save money. Sanders' overarching answer to all of these questions about whether his ideas are achievable is that establishment politics aren't working and that a political revolution is needed.

MONTAGNE: Well, one person who has said that his ideas aren't achievable politically is Hillary Clinton. What did she have to say?

KEITH: In the audience, she was really pressed by the people there, and they pushed her where it hurts. They asked her about Benghazi, about her private email server, her commitment to economic equality. And she really didn't break any new ground with her answers on Benghazi and emails. Then she got a question from a Bernie Sanders supporter who straight up asked her why young people are so excited about Sanders and why they don't trust her. Clinton insisted that there really are young people who do support her, but she also came off as maybe a little bit defensive on the trust question.


HILLARY CLINTON: They throw all this stuff at me, and I'm still standing. But 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 you have to say to yourself, why are they throwing all of that? Well, I'll tell you why, because I've been on the frontlines of change and progress since I was your age.

KEITH: And she kept coming back to this theme that you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose. She was cribbing that from President Obama, who described her that way in an interview, that - basically arguing that Clinton isn't a poetic campaigner at all but that she would be an effective president. And that's now her central argument. Forget the poetry. Focus on, she says, winning in November and governing effectively with a Republican Congress.

MONTAGNE: All right, well, there's lots more to come, but thanks for now, NPR's Tamara Keith.

KEITH: You're welcome. 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.

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