DES MOINES — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will appear on the same stage Monday night for the final time before the Iowa caucuses in a forum that offers the Democratic presidential hopefuls a chance to air their differences in an increasing combative race.
With just a week remaining until the first presidential nominating contest, Clinton, Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley are all planning to participate in a “presidential town hall” to be broadcast live on CNN at 9 p.m. EST.
The forum comes at a key juncture in the race, with recent polls showing Clinton’s once-formidable lead over Sanders having vanished.
Leading up to to the town hall, Clinton continued to criss-cross the state Monday — and her campaign continued to spar with Sanders over gun control and other issues on which they say Sanders has changed his positions.
The Clinton campaign accused Sanders of “caving to pressure” eight times in 10 days on a series of issues, including his statements on Iran and his position on repealing a key law that prohibits federal funding for abortions.
And the campaign criticized Sanders for a mailer sent out to voters that called him “A lifelong advocate for gun safety.” Instead, the Clinton campaign “fixed” the flyer to say: “A lifelong advocate for gun companies’ safety from liability.”
The mailer, which the Sanders campaign said was sent to 233,000 households, sought to burnish his credentials on an issue that has dogged him for much of the campaign.
Sanders, who represents a state with little gun control, has a mixed record on the issue, having voted against the landmark Brady Bill and for legislation granting legal immunity from gun manufacturers and deals when their products are used to commit a crime.
The mailer highlighted other votes Sanders has taken to ban assault weapons and strengthen background checks.
On the campaign trail, Clinton referred to Sanders only as her “esteemed opponent,” and largely stuck to her measured argument for her candidacy — that “the hard, patient, persistent way is the best way to accomplish our goals.”
During a full day of campaigning, Sanders largely stuck to his primary message of rebuilding the middle class. At a stop in Iowa Falls, he heard from several audience members struggling to stay afloat financially, include one woman who was in tears as she told him about not be able to afford to pay her bills and not having enough money to buy presents for her children while she waited on a disability payment.
“Thank you. Thank you,” Sanders said. “ It is not easy for people to stand up and share their stories.”
He said was running because for president because there are so many stories like hers.
To comply with a Democratic National Committee rule limiting the number of formal debates, Monday’s town hall calls for the candidates to take questions separately from moderator Chris Cuomo and the audience. Sanders, O’Malley and then Clinton will each have 30 minutes on stage, according to CNN.
In recent weeks, the former secretary of state has turned far more aggressive, seeking to put the Vermont senator on his heels on issues including gun control, health care and reproductive rights.
Clinton has also argued that she is the only candidate prepared to do the entire job of being president — a not-so-subtle dig at a competitor whose campaign has focused largely on economic issues. She has suggested that Sanders is not pushing realistic policy ideas, citing as a prime example his plan for a single-payer, Medicare-for-all health plan.
Aides say Clinton is expected to use the CNN forum to continue to highlight what she sees as defining differences with Sanders.
Sanders, meanwhile, has been taking aim at Clinton more directly than ever. In a Washington Post interview over the weekend, he said Clinton was running a “desperate” campaign incapable of generating the kind of excitement his has. Sanders sharply questioned Clinton’s association with David Brock, who runs a pro-Clinton super PAC, repeatedly calling him a “hit man,” and he said he expects the Clinton campaign to throw “the kitchen sink” at him to try to blunt his momentum.
At the same time, Sanders has stepped up his attacks on Clinton for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from banking and corporate interests in the run-up to her 2016 campaign. He has singled out her payments from giant investment firm Goldman Sachs, suggesting that undercuts her ability to pursue serious Wall Street reform.
For O’Malley, Monday night represents a final chance to be seen as relevant before a national audience. Despite spending more time in Iowa than either Clinton or Sanders, O’Malley has remained mired in the single digits in polling.
Under the complicated rules of the Iowa caucuses, in most of the 1,681 precincts, a candidate must get 15 percent support to be considered viable. Otherwise, his supporters must align with another candidate or sit out the rest of the process.
Some longtime caucus-watchers think that dynamic could tip a close race in the direction of either Clinton or Sanders, depending on who is the more popular second choice of O’Malley supporters.