Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton and top rival Bernie Sanders finally squared off in the party's first debate of the 2016 campaign, with both singling out income inequality as the scourge of America.
The main protagonists in the debate drama clearly emerged as Clinton and Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont who has drawn huge crowds on the campaign trail. Three other hopefuls seeking to make their mark with a national audience round out the field.
Clinton is keen to inject some excitement into her campaign and show she can rally the Democratic base from now into next year, while Sanders must test whether his "political revolution" can translate to the national stage.
While there were few early signs of a dramatic clash of personalities as seen in the first two Republican debates, the 67-year-old former secretary of state will no doubt face pressure from the upstart Sanders in their much-anticipated encounter.
Should Clinton take on Sanders too aggressively, she risks antagonising liberal voters that have lined up behind the Vermont senator.
"I am a progressive, but I'm a progressive who gets things done," Clinton said.
Sanders, buoyed by loud cheers from the crowd, insisted he was not a part of the "casino capitalist" system that is creating a "rigged economy" in America.
"I believe in a society where all people do well, not just Wall Street billionaires," he said.
The other three challengers - former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, ex-senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee - struggled to generate breakout moments to show they are electable alternatives.
Besides focusing on headline proposals such as gun control, health care or regulating Wall Street, Clinton will want to prove that she can be the first woman to win the White House, despite a recent downward trend in her poll numbers.
Clinton still leads nationally, but she trails Sanders by nearly 10 points in New Hampshire and holds only a modest lead in Iowa. Both are key early-voting states in the nomination process, setting momentum for the rest of the primary race.
The election is nearly 13 months away, but in February Americans begin the months-long voting process of selecting their party nominees.
Clinton has rarely mentioned Sanders on the campaign trail, but she and the senator squared off on stage in the first minutes of the debate.
She used her rival's moderate position on guns - Sanders hails from Vermont, a rural state with few firearm restrictions - to highlight an area where liberals who seek tighter gun laws break with Sanders.
Asked if Sanders was tough enough on the gun issue, a steely Clinton said "No, not at all".
"This has gone on too long," Clinton said of gun violence, in the aftermath of a series of deadly shootings on school campuses.
"And it's time the entire country stood up against the NRA," she said, referring to the large pro-gun lobby.