Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks on February 3, 2016 in Derry, New Hampshire
Portsmouth (United States) (AFP) - Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders face off Thursday in the first debate since their bruising Iowa clash and days before the next round of voting in the tortuous race to the White House.
Clinton won Iowa by a hair but Sanders leads handsomely in the polls in New Hampshire, where Republicans are also swarming to for the crucial February 9 vote, with Donald Trump eager to reclaim the Republican lead after he was beaten in Iowa by arch-conservative Senator Ted Cruz.
The billionaire Trump also faces the sudden, dramatic rise of Senator Marco Rubio, who is gaining traction among mainstream Republican voters.
Sanders, an independent senator from neighboring Vermont and self-described democratic socialist, is riding high in the Granite State, commanding a 20 percent lead over Clinton, according to the latest poll.
Clinton's campaign admitted that Sanders had raised more money in January -- $20 million in donations to their $15 million, an indication of Sanders' growing stature in their battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sanders claimed moral victory in the Iowa vote earlier this week, drawing nearly even with his more illustrious rival in the first vote of the 2016 election cycle.
Clinton clinched the narrowest victory in Iowa caucus history with 49.8 percent compared to 49.6 percent for Sanders, saving herself the embarrassment of reliving her bitter 2008 defeat to Barack Obama.
She is now trying to cut substantially into Sanders' New Hampshire lead and regain some momentum going into friendlier territory later this month in Nevada and South Carolina.
- Sanders streaks ahead -
Their debate showdown, scheduled at the last minute, will be their first without Democratic challenger Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor who exited the race after a disastrous showing in Iowa.
With just the two on stage, Clinton and Sanders will square off over their key differences on foreign policy, guns, health care and taxes at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, aired by MSNBC.
An NBC, Wall Street Journal, Marist poll released hours before the debate gave Sanders 58 percent support among likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire and Clinton 38 percent.
Sanders also leads the former first lady among independents, 69 to 26 percent, and voters aged 18-29 by 76 to 24 percent, the poll found.
At a town hall meeting Wednesday in Derry, New Hampshire, the two made back-to-back appearances, clashing over who will more faithfully carry the progressive torch.
Clinton insisted she is "a progressive who gets results," as opposed to the more ideological "political revolution" espoused by Sanders, 74, who has chased young and first-time voters.
The more moderate Clinton is about incremental change: slow but steady reforms on Wall Street, tweaks to Obama's Affordable Care Act and expanding university scholarships.
Clinton, 68, acknowledged she faces an uphill battle in winning over the younger vote, which polls show identify strongly with Sanders' poverty-busting agenda and free tuition at public colleges.
"They don't have to be for me, I'm going to be for them," she said.
Sanders insists he is the candidate more committed to reining in billionaires' influence on the US political system.
"You're looking at the guy who's not just talking the talk when it comes to campaign finance -- I am walking the walk," Sanders posted on Twitter.
- Marco-mentum? -
On the Republican side, Trump is firmly ahead in New Hampshire, with the telegenic Rubio moving into second place ahead of Cruz, according to the latest University of Massachusetts/Lowell poll.
Trump leads Rubio by 21 points and analysts warn that anything less than victory on Tuesday will further damage his campaign message that he is a winner.
For the first time, he ditched big-style rallies to schedule smaller, more traditional campaign stops with small business owners, police and a town hall on Thursday in New Hampshire.
Trump is "very rattled," said Cruz in a video broadcast by CNN.
The real estate mogul has accused Cruz of stealing victory in Iowa by sending out a misleading statement saying fellow candidate Ben Carson was quitting the race, something Carson vehemently denied.
Rubio is claiming his own "Marco-mentum." His team has announced several new congressional endorsements, with Rubio projecting a sense of confidence and mainstream electability on the campaign trail.
Rubio now claims support from six US senators, including South Carolina's Tim Scott. Cruz has no endorsements yet from fellow senators.