JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, two weeks from tonight, voters in Iowa will gather to caucus and cast the first votes in the race for president.
Last night, the Democratic candidates debated one last time before voting.
NewsHour political director Lisa Desjardins reports how the tightening race sparked the Democrats' most tense debate yet.
LISA DESJARDINS: The three Democratic candidates entered the stage, and a debate, with substance and swipes, both.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, Democratic Presidential Candidate: This should not be a political issue.
LISA DESJARDINS: The first topic, guns, was close to home for the Charleston, South Carolina, crowd, where nine black churchgoers were killed by a white gunman in June.
NBC's Lester Holt asked Bernie Sanders about his 2005 vote to protect gun makers and gun sellers from lawsuits. Sanders replied he was now for a bill that would roll back some of those protections.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: What we also said, is a small mom and pop gun shop who sells a gun legally to somebody should not be held liable if somebody does something terrible with that gun.
So what I said is, I would re-look at it. We are going to re-look at it and I will support stronger provisions.
LISA DESJARDINS: Hillary Clinton pounced at the chance to be to the left of Sanders.
HILLARY CLINTON, Democratic Presidential Candidate: He has voted with the NRA, with the gun lobby numerous times. He voted against the Brady Bill five times. He voted for what we call the Charleston loophole. He voted for immunity from gun makers and sellers.
LISA DESJARDINS: Third on stage, and a distant third in the polls, Martin O'Malley hit at both rivals.
FORMER GOV. MARTIN O'MALLEY, Democratic Presidential Candidate: they've both been inconsistent when it comes to this issue.
MARTIN O'MALLEY: I'm the one candidate on this stage that actually brought people together to pass comprehensive gun safety legislation.
LISA DESJARDINS: Another clash came on health care. Clinton said political reality makes another health care overhaul impossible right now, and, instead, President Obama's Affordable Care Act must be protected.
HILLARY CLINTON: There are things we can do to improve it, but to tear it up and start over again, pushing our country back into that kind of a contentious debate, I think, is the wrong direction.
LISA DESJARDINS: But Sanders insisted the U.S. should strive to cover everyone.
BERNIE SANDERS: No one is tearing this up. We're going to go forward. But with the secretary neglected to mention, not just the 29 million still have no health insurance, that even more are underinsured with huge co-payments and deductibles.
LISA DESJARDINS: The volleying came hours after Sanders released this, an outline of his Medicare-for-all plan. Sanders would replace the current system, private insurers, with a single government-run system. The price tag, $1.4 trillion a year, his campaign says.
Sanders would pay for that a few ways: Employers and most taxpayers would each pay a percentage of income as a kind of premium. But the biggest chunk comes from a sweeping income tax change. Sanders would raise rates for those making over $250,000. They'd rise to a 52 percent income tax for the very top, multimillionaires.
That touched off a dispute over whether the middle class would come out ahead or behind from the plan.
HILLARY CLINTON: I'm the only candidate standing here tonight who has said I will not raise taxes on the middle class.
BERNIE SANDERS: It's one thing to say I'm raising taxes. It's another thing to say that we are doing away with private health insurance premiums.
LISA DESJARDINS: With each exchange, the candidates were fighting to define themselves and each other. Sanders pushed his anti-Wall Street message and Clinton's donations from banks.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: It's easy to say, well, I'm going to do this and do that, but I have doubts when people receive huge amounts of money from Wall Street.
LISA DESJARDINS: In her defense, and through the night, Clinton clung to President Obama more than ever.
HILLARY CLINTON: He's criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street, and President Obama has led our country out of the great recession. Senator Sanders called him weak, disappointing.
LISA DESJARDINS: The candidates did talk foreign policy, but the real divides were domestic and sharper than seen before, a sign of a tightening race, with voting in Iowa just two weeks away.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Lisa Desjardins.
JUDY WOODRUFF: With more on last night's debate and the race among the Republican candidates, for Politics Monday, we turn to Tamara Keith of NPR, and, filling in for Amy Walter, Susan Page of USA Today.
Welcome to you both.
TAMARA KEITH, NPR: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, they didn't hold back, Tamara. Did either one of them land any lasting blows?
TAMARA KEITH: I think that they both came out and they defined themselves the way that they wanted to be defined, which is Hillary Clinton came out, and she really was the pragmatic one, the one who said, you know, I have fought this fight, and this is going to be tough, and tried to paint Senator Sanders of idealistic and out of touch.
Meanwhile, Senator Sanders did a pretty good job of painting her as willing to settle for less, and why should the U.S. do what it's done before and sort of settle for what the Washington establishment says is possible?
I think they both came out and they were themselves.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Such a different tone from the previous three debates.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Really different.
SUSAN PAGE: Remember that first debate, when Bernie Sanders said, "We're sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails," and they shook hands and everybody smiled?
Days of smiling with each other were over, two weeks until the Iowa caucuses, margin of error races in both Iowa and New Hampshire. So you really saw them really fiercely attacking one another in ways that we haven't even before.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Did you think that anything that was said did real damage?
SUSAN PAGE: Yes, I do. I think that the — that the — Bernie Sanders did some damage to Hillary Clinton by saying, I have an idealistic vision for coverage for all, health care coverage for all. That is going to appeal to voters who are in the Democratic — who vote in Democratic primaries.
And I thought Hillary Clinton, by embracing Barack Obama in a way that she hasn't done before, helped her in states like South Carolina, where Barack Obama has a 90 percent approval rating among Democrats in South Carolina, and raising issues about the criticism that Bernie Sanders has made of Obama in the past.
So, I think, in that way, both of them did some of the damage they came in intending to do.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Why, Tamara, didn't we see this earlier?
And I ask because there was a — I think a New York Times story over the weekend that said there are some in the Clinton camp who think maybe they should have gone after Sanders earlier.
TAMARA KEITH: And it's not clear to me that those people are really inside the Clinton campaign, as much as maybe friends of the Clintons or people in the orbit.
This was inevitable. This race has gotten closer. And, also, people are paying attention now. I went to a bunch of events in Iowa last week. And every voter I met said, oh, this is the first campaign event I'm going to this cycle. People are paying attention now and the candidates are making their closing arguments.
And it can't be all hugs and kumbaya at the very end. They need to define themselves. An interesting question for Bernie Sanders is, does defining himself, does trying to define Hillary Clinton make him seem more like a politician? People expect Hillary Clinton to be like a politician. It's not as clear that people expect Bernie Sanders to do the politician thing.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Susan, how much is Hillary Clinton being pulled to the left by Sanders, who, as we need remind no one, has called himself a Democratic socialist?
SUSAN PAGE: You know, I don't know if Bernie Sanders will get the nomination or not, will win the war, but — will win the battle, but he's won the war.
Hillary Clinton already has been pulled significantly to the left on a whole series of issues, including — including saying she wants to change the health care system, even though she hasn't really laid out any details on how she wants to improve and build on Obamacare.
On other issues well, she's including income inequality and treatment of Wall Street. We have seen her pulled to the left because of this challenge from Bernie Sanders.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk for a few minutes about the Republicans.
If it's getting tougher, Tamara, on the Democratic side, it's clearly getting tougher on the Republican side between these two front-runners, at least in Iowa, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. In that case, is it the same dynamic at work, that we're getting close to voting and it's just getting nasty as a result?
TAMARA KEITH: We are getting close to voting.
And Ted Cruz had said he had sort of predicted this, that he was going to hug Donald Trump until he didn't anymore. Donald Trump has not fallen as Ted Cruz sort of expected him to. And so he's starting to go on the attack and say, hey, look, Donald Trump isn't a real conservative. He used to be a Democrat.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump, whenever someone is on his heels, turns around and begins attacking. So, this is not a surprise. One interesting thing today that sort of gives a sense of the state of the race, Donald Trump was at Liberty University, the evangelical university, giving a speech, and Ted Cruz is now in New Hampshire, where Donald Trump has a solid lead, on a 17-stop bus tour.
So, they are going — going for each other's strengths there.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What — Susan, how do you see this race between the two of them? Is it really between the — is it down to the two of them now?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, it's down to the two of them to be the front-runner. And who would have thought six months ago, when these people were announcing, that we would get two weeks before the Iowa caucuses and the two leading candidates nationwide and in the first two states would be Donald Trump and Ted Cruz? I don't think any of us would have predicted that.
It just shows how remarkable this race has been. There's a battle between the two of them to be the outsider candidate who has — that have been leading the field from the start. There is a second race going on to be the surviving establishment figure, whether it's John Kasich or Chris Christie or Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, to be the alternative once that battle is won.
JUDY WOODRUFF: That separate lane.
But are the — do issues matter at this point, Tamara? Are voters — and you have been talking to voters in Iowa. I mean, are they asking about the candidates' positions, or is it who do they like?
TAMARA KEITH: I still think that it's — so much of politics comes down to who do you like and who would you like to have a beer with some day.
There's certainly an element of that. I think that issues matter too. But I think that there may not be a really strong cry for details and specifics. It is not clear yet, but it sure seems like this could be a passion election.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Susan, we hear, we read, we understand that Ted Cruz has a pretty good campaign organization in Iowa. How much does that matter in the final…
SUSAN PAGE: It could really deliver for him in Iowa, because Donald Trump has tried to build an organization, but Ted Cruz has the traditional Iowa organization that can turn people out.
But I would just say, look at what hasn't mattered this year. Money hasn't mattered, or Jeb Bush would be leading. I don't think that issues have mattered so much. It's really been, who can channel my anger? Who can shake things up, especially on the Republican side?
So, it may be a year in which organization matters less. We're just going to have to find out in two weeks.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And are we seeing, just quickly, Tamara, New Hampshire waiting to see what Iowa does, or is New Hampshire already making up its mind?
TAMARA KEITH: I don't think New Hampshire would ever say that they are waiting to see what Iowa does.
You know, there is, like, a real intense campaign happening there, just as there is in Iowa, and especially in the establishment lane on the Republican side.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it doesn't get any more exciting than this.
But it will be even more exciting next week. Tamara Keith, Susan Page, we thank you.
SUSAN PAGE: Thank you.
TAMARA KEITH: You're welcome.