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Despite O'Malley's strong night, Clinton, Sanders still dominate

In the fourth and final Democratic debate of the 2016 primary season before the nominating process begins, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley came across as an experienced, empathetic leader who gets results.

While the governor could benefit from his strong performance, it may be too late for him to get enough momentum to be a competitive candidate in the first nominating contests, just a couple weeks away. If anything, the debate may have solidified voters' existing impressions about the front runners: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton effectively argued that she's a pragmatic, battle-tested politician who can work effectively on both foreign policy and domestic fronts. Sen. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, drove home his message about the influence of money in politics, tying it to nearly every debate topic.

"I understand this is the hardest job in the world," Clinton stressed in her opening remarks of the debate, hosted by NBC in Charleston, South Carolina. She added that she can do "all aspects of the job."

Sanders may have tried to cast Clinton as a typical politician in the pocket of special interests, but Clinton countered with evidence that she's capable of helping regular Americans when it really counts. In her closing remarks, given the opportunity to talk about any issue, she brought up the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Clinton pointed out that she dispatched her top campaign aide to Flint to coordinate with the mayor, while she herself went on television to pressure Michigan's Republican Gov. Rick Snyder into action.

"I said it was outrageous the governor hasn't acted, and within two hours, he had," she said.

While Clinton stressed her ability to get things done, Sanders kept up his performance as the candidate with vision.

"That's what our campaign is about, it is thinking big," he said, putting forward ideas like a "Medicare for all" health care system, free public colleges and a $15 minimum wage. Accomplishing those goals, he argued, is dependent on reducing the influence of big corporations. "Nothing real will get [done] unless we have a political revolution where millions of people finally stand up," he said.

Clinton and Sanders took most of the time on the debate stage, finally coming face to face over issues at the heart of their increasingly combative campaigns -- gun control, health care and Wall Street reform.

Sanders put Clinton on defense over her ties to Wall Street, slamming her for taking more than $600,000 in personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. Such ties matter, he argued, when a company like Goldman Sachs is fined $5 billion for its role in the financial crisis but doesn't have to jail any of its executives. In contrast to Clinton, Sanders said, "I don't take money from big banks, I don't get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs."

Clinton rebutted that there's "no daylight" between her and Sanders on the basic premise that there's "no bank too big to fail, no individual too powerful to jail."

While Sanders was on offense on Wall Street, he had to play defense on gun control. The senator defended the more nuanced positions he's taken as a legislator from a rural state and noted he has a D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association. Even so, Clinton listed a series of gun-related votes Sanders has taken to prove he's not strong enough on the issue, from voting against the Brady Bill five times to voting to allow guns onto Amtrak trains and into national parks.

On health care, the two front runners went head to head on whether it's worth reopening a major debate over the matter. "The Democratic Party of the United States worked since Harry Truman to get the Affordable Care Act passed," Clinton said. "We finally have a path to universal health care. We've accomplished so much already... I don't want to see us start over again with a contentious debate."

Truman, Sanders countered, wouldn't be satisfied. "Right now what we have to deal with is the fact that 29 million people still have no health insurance," he said. "Tell me why we are spending almost three times more than the British, who guarantee health care for all of their people. We're not going to tear up the Affordable Care Act -- I helped write it. But we are going to move forward."

While Clinton and Sanders focused on the big picture, O'Malley used the opportunity to highlight specific policies he promoted as governor, such as maintaining Maryland's effective "all-payer" system, which requires all insurers to pay the same price to hospitals for health services. "We pay them based on how well they keep patients out of the hospital," he said, encouraging health care providers to "do the things that work, reduce costs, and increase access."

And while O'Malley's record on guns and criminal justice reform is certainly questionable, given Baltimore's problems with violence and policing, the former governor managed to cut through the front runners' back-and-forth on gun violence.

"They've both been inconsistent on this issue," he said. "I'm the one candidate on this stage that actually brought people together to pass comprehensive gun safety legislation."

O'Malley effectively personalized the issue, with an anecdote about meeting a three-year-old shooting victim in the hospital.

O'Malley also brought a personal touch to the discussion over putting ground troops in the Middle East to fight ISIS. He recalled a woman from Burlington, Iowa who discouraged him from using the term "boots on the ground" to describe her son or other soldiers. While the candidates all agree there should be no U.S. ground troops in the fight against ISIS, O'Malley's personal appeal on the matter won him applause.