Democratic presidential candidates former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) appear at a Democratic debate at the University of New Hampshire on Feb. 4, 2016 in Durham, N.H.
Mike Segar—Reuters
By Tessa Berenson
February 5, 2016

When Hillary Clinton criticizes Bernie Sanders, it is usually based on the idea that he’s too idealistic and won’t be able to deliver on his goals. But she took a different tack at certain points during the fifth Democratic debate, instead trying to paint him as just another politician.

The first moment came when Vermont Senator accused Clinton of not being a true progressive, a fight the two candidates have been waging in recent days.

“I understand Senator Sanders is really trying to distinguish himself,” the former Secretary of State said. “I understand that, that’s what you do in campaigns. But at the same time, let’s not be, in I think an unfair way, making an accusation or making an attack about where I stand and where I’ve always stood.”

In the context of the Democratic primary, the line is not just one politician complaining about another. It’s an attempt to undermine one of Sanders’ key assets: his authenticity.

Time and again, Sanders has refused to make a negative attack, arguing that he prefers an issue-oriented campaign. His campaign staff does not include the usual coterie of so-called “oppo researchers” who dig up dirt on rivals. At the last debate, he said he “cannot walk down the street” without someone urging him to attack Clinton. And his most negative ad still declined to name Clinton.

So it was a potent strain of attack for Clinton, and she furthered it later in the debate when Sanders brought up her Super PAC and speaking fees from Wall Street groups.

“Senator Sanders has said he wants to run a positive campaign… But time and time again by innuendo, 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,” Clinton said. “And I just absolutely reject that, Senator. And I really don’t think these attacks by insinuation are worthy of you.”

“I think it’s time to end the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out in recent weeks, and let’s talk about the issues,” she said.

Saying the attacks aren’t “worthy” of Sanders and he should be above them was a particularly withering moment, since that’s how he’s been trying to campaign all along.

Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.berenson@timeinc.com.

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