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Rivals' Gloves Come Off Against Clinton In Democratic Forum

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley take the stage after individually answering questions during Friday night's First In The South Democratic Presidential Forum at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. Chuck Burton/AP hide caption

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Chuck Burton/AP

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley take the stage after individually answering questions during Friday night's First In The South Democratic Presidential Forum at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

Chuck Burton/AP

They didn't share a stage during Friday night's South Carolina Democratic forum, but Hillary Clinton's rivals still managed to throw plenty of elbows trying to question the frontrunner's liberal bona fides.

Trying to stunt the former secretary of state's rise in the polls, both Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley jabbed at Clinton during their interviews with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow at Winthrop Unversity, criticizing her environmental positions, her coziness with Wall Street and more.

For Sanders, the Vermont independent senator, it was an important departure from the tone he set in the primary's only debate so far. He memorably defended Clinton over criticism she had received about her private email server while at the state department — declaring "enough with the damn emails."

But as Sanders had hinted in interviews this week with NPR and other publications, he was ready to take the gloves off, and his hits last night could be a preview of what's to come in next Saturday's debate in Iowa.

Though Maddow didn't press Sanders on Clinton's email, he did raise questions — not mentioning her by name, but the intention was clear — about her commitment to environmental protections, embracing campaign finance reform and differing foreign policy views.

"Now to me, as opposed to maybe some other unnamed candidates, the issue of Keystone was kind of a no-brainer," Sanders said, pointing to President Obama's decision earlier that day to block the TransCanadian oil pipeline. "So I said no to the Keystone on day one."

Though Sanders complained that it was largely the media trying to play up animosity between the two, "begging me to beat up on Hillary Clinton," Sanders did take the bait in a way he hasn't in the past.

"Now, I have many disagreements with Hillary Clinton. And one of them is that I don't think it's good enough just to talk the talk on campaign finance reform. You've got to walk the walk," he said.

Sanders also said he was opposed to President Obama's recent decision to deploy special operation forces to Syria to help battle ISIS. Pointing out he had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, unlike Clinton, the Vermont senator said he did "not want to see us get in — sucked into a quagmire of which there may be no end."

Speaking in the state which will have the first Southern primary, Sanders acknowledged he had some work to do. He's trailing Clinton badly in the Palmetto State, largely because he hasn't caught on with the state's sizable African-American population.

Pointing to his involvement in the civil rights movement when he was in college and his current push to raise the minimum wage and promote more economic equality, Sanders said his message would eventually resonate with those voters.

"I think I have the economic and social justice agenda now that, once we get the word out, will, in fact, resonate with the African-American community," he argued.

Another person who badly needs to get some momentum in South Carolina, or anywhere, is O'Malley. The former Maryland governor, who took the stage first on Friday night, didn't hold back in his criticisms of Clinton, and also claimed she had just recently opposed the Keystone XL pipeline when it became politically expedient to do so.

But he also broadened his attacks to take on Sanders, questioning the political independent and self-described Democratic socialist's commitment to the Democratic Party, and even alluding to the fact that Clinton had been a Republican in her college years.

"I think that when President Obama was running for re-election, I was glad to step up and work very hard for him, while Sen. Sanders was trying to find someone to primary him," O'Malley said. "I am a Democrat. I'm a lifelong Democrat. I'm not a former independent. I'm not a former Republican. I believe in the party of Franklin Roosevelt, the party of John F. Kennedy. I believe that we're all in this together and we can make a better future. And that's why I'm running for our party's nomination. And I've never once rejected the nomination of the Democratic Party. Nor will I this time."

When Clinton took the stage last night in Rock Hill, S.C., if she had heard her opponents' knocks on her, she didn't bite and didn't acknowledge her other lower-polling rivals.

Pressed by Maddow on her Wall Street ties, Clinton didn't explain why she had given paid speeches to some financial groups but instead stuck to her campaign message that she wouldn't be swayed by special interests.

"Anybody who thinks that they can influence what I will do doesn't know me very well. And they can actually look and see what I have said and done throughout my career," Clinton said.

Clinton also sounded a much softer tone on the death penalty than some of her rivals. Admitting she was an "unenthusiastic" supporter of capital punishment, Clinton said it still may be appropriate in certain cases, such as domestic and foreign terrorism.

The former cabinet member also defended President Obama on the economy, signaling to core Democrats, and especially many black voters in the South who embrace the president, that she would continue his work.

"I feel very strongly that President Obama doesn't get the credit he deserves for the great job he's done," she said.

Though some Democrats had wanted Friday night's forum to be a sanctioned debate, which was not allowed during strict guidelines from the Democratic National Committee, the more relaxed forum allowed each candidate to get more time to explain their policies and positions, and giving more substantive answers instead of just sound bites.

But Maddow didn't just stick to serious topics. In a lighthearted bit she repeated with each candidate, she asked them to pick a card which had some off-beat questions. Among the revelations: the oddest piece of clothing O'Malley owns is a kilt, and that if Sanders wasn't a politician, he'd want to be president of CNN. And Clinton as to her personality type, Clinton claimed she was an "extro-introvert" who liked to be around people but also liked her alone time.