Just the Two of Them

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 11.43.30 AMMAGGIE HABERMAN

Friday, February 5, 2016

Good Friday morning. Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont met for the final debate before the New Hampshire primary in a forum that offered highlights, facts that needed checking and the first one-on-one contest between the candidates.

For months, Democrats have wondered what a debate between just Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont would look like. That finally materialized Thursday night as the candidates faced off at the University of New Hampshire in a forum hosted by MSNBC that was scheduled after much back-and-forth between the two campaigns.

Both candidates came prepared, and were fiery. Mrs. Clinton was sharp and clear, with prepared jabs at Mr. Sanders. She accused him of an “artful smear” regarding the speaking fees she has received from major banks, a claim he took issue with but did not really rebut. However, Mrs. Clinton seemed uncomfortable answering a question about those speeches, saying she would “look into it” when asked by one of the moderators, Chuck Todd, whether she would release the transcripts of those paid addresses. She fared better in her accusations that Mr. Sanders would undo President Obama’s signature health care law.

Mrs. Clinton appeared at ease talking about foreign policy, on which Mr. Sanders still seemed to struggle. Asked about the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, he said that King Abdullah II of Jordan had “hit the nail” on the head when describing how fighting the terrorist group should work. As in previous debates, Mr. Sanders also pulled some punches that he might have been able to land.

Absent from the debate for much of the night was a discussion of two hot-button issues for Democrats — gun control and immigration. Gun control is one of the only areas where Mrs. Clinton can hit Mr. Sanders from the left.

Mr. Sanders, who has often frustrated his aides by not preparing for debates, seemed ready for this one. And while he is still trying to pass a commander-in-chief test, he seemed buoyed by his close second in the Iowa caucuses. The debate, the final one before the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, is unlikely to change many minds.

The same will probably not be said of the Republican debate on Saturday evening, hosted by ABC. After skipping the last one, Donald J. Trump needs a true victory, not just one by default as he recedes into the background while others duke it out. The same is also true for Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has to build on a strong third-place showing in Iowa with something other than counterpunches.