(CN) - Among the many differences between the Democratic presidential candidate debate held in Charleston on Sunday night, and the Republican contest held in the city two days earlier, perhaps the biggest was the figurative and literal absence of Donald Trump.
Where many of participants in the large Republican field last Thursday night appeared to be sidetracked by the front-running and headline-grabbing Trump, each of the Democrats who took the stage at Charleston 1,800-seat Galliard Center Sunday strove to sure up their base and erode the support of their opponents.
In short, it was more of a debate in a traditional sense.
As was true of Republican debate, Sunday night's contest was the last televised debate the candidates, in this case former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland will participate in before caucus-goers gather in Iowa on Feb. 1 to cast the first votes of 2016 presidential contest.
Hillary Clinton sought to present herself as the defendant of President Barack Obama's record, while painting Sanders as a fringe candidates likely to dismantle the president's legacy. Sanders refused to back down, criticizing Clinton's attacks as dishonest, and at one point, even throwing up his hands in frustration at something she said.
Sanders has been gaining ground on Clinton in recent polls, and among the his proposals that she sought to weaken was his plan to amend Obama's signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, but incorporating a single-payer plan.
Clinton characterized this as reckless and playing into the hands of Republicans who want to do away with the whole thing.
"We've accomplished so much already ... I don't want to see the Republicans repeal it," Clinton said.
Sanders dismissed Clinton's statement as "nonsense."
He said his proposals, which he refers to as "Medicare for all," will "finally" provide healthcare for everyone, "as a right."
Clinton was not deterred.
"The Republicans just voted last week to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and thank goodness, President Obama vetoed it and saved Obamacare for the American people," she said, eliciting sustained applause from the audience.
"That is one of the greatest accomplishments of President Obama, of the Democratic Party, and of our country," she said of the Affordable Care Act.
" ... 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," she said.
"No one is tearing this up,' Sanders insisted. "We're going forward."
Clinton also sought to portray Sanders as less consistent than he initially appeared to potential primary voters, pointing to changes in his position on gun control and other issues.
Sanders again dismissed Clinton's assertions, calling her comments on his record "very disingenuous."
There were also some artful twists and turns in their back and forth.
When Sanders sought to paint Clinton as a friend of big bankers on Wall Streets, pointing out she received more than $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, Clinton seized the moment to portray Sanders as opposed to the president on the issue of Wall Street regulation.
But this fighting over Wall Street opened the door for Martin O'Malley, who criticized Clinton for evoking the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the past when explaining why she accepted Wall Street donations when she represented New York in the U.S.
"Now you bring up President Obama here in South Carolina in defense of the fact of your cozy relationship with Wall Street," said O'Malley, who served as Maryland governor from 2007 to 2015, and as mayor of Baltimore from 1999 to 2007.
Undergirding all of this was Bernie Sanders' poll numbers, which continue to surge in the states the hold the first two actual votes of the primary season, Iowa and New Hampshire.
"When this campaign began, she was 50 points ahead of me. ... We were all of three percentage points. Guess what? In Iowa and New Hampshire, the race is very, very close," Sanders pointed out.
As result, many Clinton watchers as well as members of her campaign team believe success in South Carolina, where more than half of likely primary voters are black, will be crucial to her bid for the presidency.
Seeking to solidify her support in the critical constituency and perhaps scoring her best points of the night Clinton said it is outrageous that one-in-three black men in America faces the statistical prospect of going to prison.
"What we would be doing if it was one out of three white men?" Clinton asked.
Later, she brought up the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Mich., where the mayor and city council have been roundly criticized for failing to swiftly address the lead contamination of the black-majority city's drinking water.
She also jabbed at Sanders for his past criticisms of Obama, who remains hugely popular with black South Carolinians.
""Sen. Sanders called him weak, disappointing. He even, in 2011, publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama," Clinton said.
But Clinton's most pointed criticism of Sanders, as far as the local audience was concerned, focus on gun control and the shooting at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last June that left nine black parishioners dead.
Clinton lambasted Sanders as a "reliable vote for the gun lobby," pointing out that he voted against the Brady Bill five times.
""He voted for what we call the Charleston loophole ... He voted to let guns go on Amtrak, for guns to go into National Parks," she said.
The "Charleston" loophole is a provision written into the federal rules governing background checks that says that if a check cannot be completed within three business days, it may proceed at the gun dealer's discretion. This is also known as a "default proceed" sale. According to the FBI, this is how Dylann Roof, the white gunman in the Charleston massacre, was able to purchase his gun.
Sanders responded by pointing out that he has received a D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association.
"I have supported from day one an instant background check to make certain that people who should not have guns do not have guns. And that includes people with criminal backgrounds, people who are mentally unstable. I support what President (Barack) Obama is doing in terms of trying to close the gun show loopholes," Sanders said.
The focus on guns provided another opening for O'Malley, who pointed out that while he was governor, Maryland passed comprehensive gun safety legislation.
"It had a ban on ... assault weapons, it included universal background checks ... and you know what? We did not interrupt a single person's hunting season," O'Malley said.
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