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[NEW YORK] Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders came to blows Thursday in a heated US presidential debate in Brooklyn, battling to win as many votes as possible in their increasingly acrimonious race to clinch the Democratic nomination.
The ninth Democratic presidential debate, held in the ultra-fashionable Duggal Greenhouse in the Brooklyn Naval Yard boasting stunning views across to Manhattan, comes just five days before the key New York primary.
The former secretary of state holds a 13.8-point lead over the Vermont senator in the New York polls and needs a big win in next Tuesday's primary after losing seven of the last eight contests to her leftist rival.
The debate got off to an acrimonious start with Mr Sanders questioning Mrs Clinton's judgment in voting for the 2003 Iraq war, supporting trade agreements that had cost US jobs and for taking donations from big money interests.
"Does Secretary Clinton have the experience and intelligence to be president? Of course she does," said Mr Sanders.
"But I do question her judgment. I question her judgment going into the war in Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country and disastrous trade agreements."
Mrs Clinton hit back, accusing Mr Sanders of waging a "phony attack." "Senator Sanders did call me unqualified. I've been called a lot of things in my life, that was a first," she said. "Questioning my judgment, well the people of New York voted for me twice to be their senator," she said.
The Brooklyn-born Mr Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, needs to capitalize on his momentum to beat Mrs Clinton in her adopted home state and keep alive his dream of wresting the nomination from the Democratic frontrunner.
His passionate call for a political revolution has galvanized young people and he spent Wednesday addressing an enormous crowd in New York's Washington Square at an event his campaign said attracted as many as 27,000 people.
But mathematics are in Mrs Clinton's favor. The former New York senator has won a commanding 1,790 delegates compared to 1,113 for Mr Sanders, putting her on course to scoop the 2,383 needed to secure the party's ticket for the White House, where she last lived as first lady from 1993-2001.
It sets the stage for a showdown at the debate, moderated by CNN and local channel NY1 in the borough where Mr Sanders was born - before America entered World War II - and which Mrs Clinton has made her campaign headquarters.
The debate got off to a heated start as 68-year-old Mrs Clinton and 74-year-old Mr Sanders exchanged far more acrimonious blows.
Mrs Clinton criticizes her opponent for not being specific on how he would implement his promise of a political revolution, usher in free college education and break up America's largest banks.
"If you go and read Senator Sanders' long interview with the Daily News, talk about judgment and the kind of problems he had answering questions about even his core issue, breaking up the banks," she said.
She is also likely to highlight his poor record on gun control after a Connecticut judge ruled Thursday that families of the victims of a 2012 shooting at an elementary school can sue the gunmaker whose rifle was used.
Mr Sanders has been pilloried by Democrat opponents for telling the New York Daily News in an interview that he did not support the lawsuit. Mrs Clinton has welcomed the ruling and backs the families' fight against "irresponsible gunmakers."
Experts warn that Mr Sanders may need to expand beyond his stump speech to score points against the seasoned debater, considered on paper one of America's most qualified candidates for the presidency in a generation.
Mrs Clinton, who has been in the unfortunate position of agreeing with many of Mr Sanders's statements, is expected to emphasize her credentials, go on the attack against Mr Sanders and offer more incremental - but realistic reforms.
A significant haul of 247 Democratic delegates are up for grabs in the New York primary, where minorities and wealthy Democrats are likely to favor Mrs Clinton, although polls suggest that Mr Sanders has narrowed her lead.
The state also attributes 44 superdelegates and the rules, which allow only registered Democrats to vote, are likely to favor Mrs Clinton. Mr Sanders has performed best in primaries that are open to independent voters.
With Republican frontrunner Donald Trump potentially facing a contested nomination and Mrs Clinton a tighter national race than she would have liked, New York may play its most decisive role in decades in a presidential election.
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