Las Vegas: US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton defended herself against charges that she has shifted positions to win over the liberal wing of her party, kicking off a debate with rival Democrats on Tuesday with a promise to raise workers' wages and make the wealthy pay higher taxes.
Saying she was the granddaughter of a factory worker, Clinton called herself a "progressive" who likes to get things done despite opposition from Republicans.
"I've been very consistent over the course of my entire life. I've always fought for the same values and principles," said Clinton, 67.
The former secretary of state is trying to slow momentum from her chief rival, Bernie Sanders, a US senator from Vermont who is polling ahead of her in the early voting state of New Hampshire and drawing large crowds at campaign events nationwide.
Sanders, 74, stuck to a popular message of boosting the middle class, fighting climate change, and reforming the US prison system.
"Millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages, and yet almost all of the new income and wealth being created is going to the top 1 percent," he said.
The two leading candidates were joined by former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee and former US Senator James Webb of Virginia in the first of six scheduled debates in the race to be the party's nominee in the November 2016 presidential election.
One person who was not on the stage but loomed large over the debate: Vice President Joe Biden, who is considering launching his own run for the nomination.
The televised encounter comes at a critical time for Clinton, whose once overwhelming lead among Democrats in polls has slipped amid questions about her use of a private email server instead of a government account when she was the top US diplomat.
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has excited the party's left wing with a message of eradicating income inequality and reining in Wall Street.
In his opening statement he argued for reform.
The lesser known candidates made veiled attacks at Clinton at the top of the debate. Chafee noted he had "no scandals" during his political career; Webb said he was not co-opted by the political system.
In response to Sanders' success, Clinton has taken stances on several key issues recently that align her with the left wing of the party.
She reversed course to announce her opposition to the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that she had praised when she was secretary of state, and she rejected the Keystone XL pipeline that she had said in 2010 she was inclined to approve. Sanders is a longtime opponent of both projects.