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US election: Hillary Clinton portrays choice between her and Bernie Sanders as realism vs idealism -

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MARK COLVIN: Experience and pragmatism versus airy promises; that's how Hillary Clinton tried to portray the battle between her and Bernie Sanders in their latest Democratic debate.

They were in furious agreement when it came to African-Americans, but the tone got sharper on some other issues, such as how election promises would be delivered and the legacy of Barack Obama's presidency.

Sanders and Clinton have each had a victory in the primary and caucuses held so far for the Democratic nomination.

Their next test is just more than a week away.

Sarah Sedghi reports.

SARAH SEDGHI: After losing to the self-described democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton was clearly determined to focus on one contrast - realism versus idealism in presidential politics.

HILLARY CLINTON: Let's take healthcare for example.

Last week in a CNN town hall, the Senator told a questioner that - the questioner would spend about $500 in taxes to get about $5,000 in healthcare.

Every progressive economist who has analysed that says that the numbers don't add up and that's a promise that cannot be kept.

SARAH SEDGHI: It's still very early days in the long campaign and the two are level-pegging so far.

Sanders won the New Hampshire primary this week, but Clinton scored a hair's breadth win in the Iowa caucuses.

Both have predominantly white electorates, but as they move south to Nevada and South Carolina, the need to appeal to black and Latino Americans becomes stronger.

Throughout the debate, both candidates wanted to prove their commitment to ending discrimination.

BERNIE SANDERS: This is one of the great tragedies in our country today, and we can no longer continue to sweep it under the rug. It has to be dealt with.

Today, a male, African-American baby born today stands a one in four chance of ending up in jail.

That is beyond unspeakable. So what we have to do is the radical reform of a broken criminal justice system.

HILLARY CLINTON: Systemic racism in this state as in others, in education, in employment, in the kinds of factors that too often lead from a position where young people, particularly young men, are pushed out of school early, are denied employment opportunities.

SARAH SEDGHI: One of the biggest disagreements of the debate came when Hillary Clinton accused Bernie Sanders of being unfairly critical of the current US President Barack Obama.

HILLARY CLINTON: I don't think he gets the credit he deserves for being a president who got us out of that ditch...

(Crowd cheers)

...put us on firm ground and has sent us into the future.

And it is the kind of criticism that we've heard from Senator Sanders about our President I expect from Republicans, I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.

BERNIE SANDERS: Madam secretary, that is a low blow.

SARAH SEDGHI: Bernie Sanders' message was the same as he's hammered for months - an insistence on bringing an end to establishment politics and economics.

But again and again, Hillary Clinton tried to sow the seeds of doubt about whether Sanders can deliver.

Dr Raymond Orr, a lecturer in politics from the University in Melbourne says her tactic could backfire.

RAYMOND ORR: Well it might be a fair assessment but it's perhaps not good politics.

Attacking Sanders in a sense of being fiscally irresponsible plays into a little bit of Hillary Clinton's weaknesses, which is not actually be that supportive of social services, along with her husband as well in the ‘90s cut back on those.

So yes, it might be one way that she can attack him but it's probably not going to be a productive way.

SARAH SEDGHI: Bernie Sanders still has the early advantage, but Hillary Clinton has the party establishment and a big pot of money behind her.

Dr Orr says for the outsider, winning Nevada and South Carolina won't be easy.

RAYMOND ORR: It is an uphill battle.

Hillary Clinton leads those states at least before the New Hampshire election in primary by at least 20 to 30 points over Sanders.

MARK COLVIN: That report from Sarah Sedghi.