Hillary Unleashes the Kraken on Bernie

The two Democratic candidates had their most fearsome engagement yet at Thursday’s debate.

02.05.16 3:30 AM ET

It was almost as if a switch went off in Hillary Clinton’s brain.

Moments into the first Democratic debate not beleaguered by the presence of Martin O’Malley, Clinton laid into her remaining opponent, Bernie Sanders.

Sanders has tried to paint Clinton, the former secretary of state and first lady, as a representative of the “establishment” he rails against. He often notes, sometimes without using Clinton’s name that she has taken millions in contributions from Wall Street and pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from banks.

But tonight, after weeks of semi-veiled attacks, Clinton announced she had enough.

“People support me because they know me, they know my life’s work, they have worked with me, and many have also worked with Senator Sanders—and at the end of the day, they endorse me because they know I can get things done,” Clinton said, redefining her “establishment” credentials as an asset.

“Being part of the establishment is in the last quarter having a super PAC that raised $15m from a whole lot of money from drug companies and other special interests,” Sanders quickly retorted.

As soon as the dreaded “e” word was used again, Clinton was ready to pounce, directly pushing Sanders to attack directly if he was going to attack at all.

“It’s fair to really ask what’s behind that comment. Senator Sanders has said that he wants to run a positive campaign, and I’ve tried to keep my disagreements over issues,” she said. “But time and time again by innuendo and by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth, which really comes down to ‘anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought,’ and I just absolutely disagree with that, senator.”

Clinton went on to insist that she would never be influenced by the vast sums of money she’s received from Wall Street.

“If you’ve got something to say, say it directly,” Clinton said, her voice raised. “You will not find that I have ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation I have received. I have stood up and I have represented my constituents to the best of my abilities, and I’m very proud of that.”

Semantics about the definition of “establishment” and “progressive” aside, this seemed to mark the beginning of a new stage in the contest between Sanders and Clinton. And it’s not going to be pretty.