Democratic contest ignites as sparks fly in latest debate between Clinton and Sanders
After months of television screens invaded by the bouffant hair, red ties and larger-than-life personality of Donald Trump, it was the Democrats who grabbed America's attention for a change in one of the most caustic yet substantive debates of the presidential election race.
With the speed and eloquence of verbal Jedi knights, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders (below) battled each other on the issues, debating everything from the death penalty and the Iraq war to big money, pharmaceutical companies and the rule of Wall Street.
Coming out of a virtual tie in the Iowa caucus, and with only days to go until the New Hampshire primary vote, the often wonkish and near sycophantic exchanges between the septuagenarian Vermont senator and Ms Clinton, were replaced with urgent discussions and flash points of genuine fury.
Mr Sanders, whose campaign is fuelled by small individual donations and the support of young Americans, worked hard to paint Ms Clinton as an "establishment" figure beholden to banks and the pharmaceutical industry, and, by contrast, highlight himself as a progressive.
After painting her as a member of the privileged elite, he called his efforts "a campaign of the people; by the people; and for the people".
"Secretary Clinton does represent the establishment," Mr Sanders said. "And I represent the people."
Ms Clinton, by contrast, tried to frame the senator as an idealist, but one who has had little success at implementing his dreams. She called his socialist policy prescriptions - on free university tuition, healthcare and other matters - unrealistic, saying that the "numbers just don't add up from what Senator Sanders is proposing".
She added: "A progressive is someone who makes progress. That's what I intend to do."
Ms Clinton retaliated against what she called "attacks by insinuation and innuendo" over her relationship with Wall Street.
She was sensitive and tense about the question of how she could be independent of financial tycoons like, for example, Goldman Sachs when she was paid $675,000 (€606,000) in speaking fees from the company. She downplayed the payments, saying the bank had simply wanted her "views on world affairs, as a former secretary of state".
But the harder Mr Sanders pushed, the angrier she got, until she displayed what seemed like genuine fury: "I don't think these attacks by insinuation are worthy of you," she told him. "You will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote for a [speaking fee]"
After accusing him of essentially calling her corrupt, she then came out with the cutting remark that his strategy was an "artful smear".
The heat of the debate reflects the increasing drama of the Democratic presidential race. The Democratic fight for the nomination had taken a back seat to the drama unfolding in the sprawling and bizarre Republican field. But now, it is proving almost equally captivating.
Mr Sanders, once written off as a no-hope candidate, has surged in the polls, creating a movement that carried him to a virtual tie with Ms Clinton in Iowa.
Going into New Hampshire, the Vermont senator has a 19-point lead over the former first lady. And her campaign aides are openly telling journalists that they expect her to lose the key primary state on Tuesday.
Even if he wins in New Hampshire, Mr Sanders will still struggle to gain traction in the southern states - the next two votes in the primary process - where Ms Clinton has secured much of the African American vote. Nonetheless, his once quixotic campaign has become a serious challenge to Ms Clinton, transforming the Democratic race that many thought would be a coronation.
When Ms Clinton and Jeb Bush announced their candidacies for president on opposing sides of the political aisle, pundits assumed the 2016 election would be a clash of the titans: a battle for the re-occupation of the White House by the country's two best-known political families.
But both the candidates have faced opposition from, and are now being beaten by, the most unlikely of political mavericks.
In a country that still associates socialism with communism, and where communism remains, largely, an enemy ideology, pundits and campaign staff alike have watched in amazement as Mr Sanders, a self-declared Democratic socialist, has surged in the polls.
And on the Republican side, Mr Trump has destroyed everything analysts and key conservative political figures thought they knew about their party. He has defied the laws of political gravity, surging after gaffes that should have damaged him, and garnering more and more support with every controversial - and often bigoted - statement.
Even in their most heated moments, Ms Clinton and Mr Sanders' debate stuck close to policy issues. It remained a substantive and meaningful debate on the topics that matter to Americans.
The same cannot be said on the Republican side, where reasonableness and substantive argument have been drowned out by character-driven entertainment. Policy-focused candidates, such as Jeb Bush, have failed to make a mark when faced with larger-than-life characters such as Donald Trump.
Mr Trump, once a television show entertainer, has shown little regard for promoting policies that could be practically implemented.
Instead of specific proposals, he sells the brand of Trump: supporters like him not because they know what he will do, but because they trust his promise to "Make America Great Again", somehow. (© Daily Telegraph, London)