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Clinton, Sanders Get Tough On Policy Differences In Close Iowa Race

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

With the Iowa caucuses just three weeks away, polls show Bernie Sanders is gaining on Hillary Clinton in the Democratic race, and that has force the two leading contenders to finally get tough on each other. NPR's Tamara Keith joins us now from Iowa. And Tam, it's that time of the race when it's actually OK to talk about the horse race. Catch us up here.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Indeed. And the latest polls show that it's close in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Now, if you were to just look at the Democratic electorate and know that there's this strong liberal wing of the party, you'd say that isn't a surprise. And both campaigns, for some time now, have been saying that it would be close in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. It's just, no one believed them for opposite reasons. And now people are starting to believe them.

MCEVERS: Right. So the candidates are mixing it up on a few issues. Let's start with guns first.

KEITH: Yeah. President Obama put gun control back on the agenda in the Democratic race last week with his executive actions. Then Friday, he published an op-ed in The New York Times, saying he wouldn't support candidates, even Democrats, that didn't support common-sense gun legislation. That's his phrase.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

KEITH: And this created an opening for Clinton to point back at Bernie Sanders and a vote that he took in 2005 to protect gun makers and dealers from lawsuits. And now Clinton is really hitting Bernie Sanders hard on that. She had brought it up a few months ago but never, you know, hit him by name. Now she's using his name. I should also note that in the last two days, Clinton has received endorsements from former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords as well as the mother of Trayvon Martin, and both of them cite her position on guns.

MCEVERS: How is Bernie Sanders responding to all this?

KEITH: He has said for a while that he would be open to revisiting the issue of gun maker and seller immunity, but he hasn't committed to repealing the immunity. And more broadly, there's a sense that Sanders - he comes from Vermont, which is a state with a strong gun culture, and he's staked out a more moderate position on guns than on other issues. And this may, in part, be related to his belief that he could win white working-class voters that have voted Republican in recent elections. And so he is not being moved on this by Clinton's push. And he said at a rally yesterday in Iowa that Clinton is just focusing on this gun issue now because she's not doing as well in the polls as she had been expected to be doing.

MCEVERS: There not just talking about guns - right? - these two Democratic candidates. They're also talking about family leave, right?

KEITH: Yes. Both support 12 weeks of paid family leave. And now they're fighting over how to pay for it. Sanders wants a small payroll tax. He's calling on Clinton to support legislation that would do that. She wants to do it through a tax on the wealthy. And we can expect more conversation from both of them about taxes. They are not going to agree entirely on taxes, and they'll be rolling out their plans in the coming days and weeks.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Tamara Keith. Thanks so much, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.