By Ginger Gibson and Steve Holland
DES MOINES (Reuters) - With Iowa kicking off the 2016 election season in one week, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton went into a CNN town hall on Monday with her campaign accusing archrival Bernie Sanders of changing his views for political convenience.
At the event, Sanders got in the first salvoes by saying his judgment, not Clinton's experience, is the most crucial quality for the next commander-in-chief. Clinton argues that as a former secretary of state and former senator from New York, she is the more experienced White House candidate.
Clinton, anxious to put down a threat from the democratic socialist, faced the challenge of convincing Democratic voters not to be swayed by Sanders' populist rhetoric and promises for more government programs.
The town hall at Drake University lacked the feel of a normal debate. It was featuring separate appearances by Sanders, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and Clinton, in that order. All three were taking audience questions at the event.
Sanders cited Clinton's 2002 Senate vote to authorize the Iraq war and her prior support for the Canada-to-Texas Keystone Pipeline as evidence that her experience is misguided. Clinton has shifted her position on both issues, while Sanders opposed both from the start.
"Experience is important but judgment is also important," he said.
Clinton, who lost the Democratic primary to Barack Obama in 2008, was for months the clear front-runner to be the party's nominee this time around, but opinion polls have showed a surge of support for Sanders in recent weeks.
She argues that while Sanders' goals on issues such as social inequality are laudable, some are unobtainable and he lacks the experience to tackle a wide range of issues.
"When you're in the White House you cannot pick the issues you want to work on, you've got to be ready to take on every issue that comes your way, including those you cannot predict," Clinton told the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines on Monday.
The Clinton campaign presaged an attack line for Clinton by issuing a news release accusing Sanders of flip-flopping on a variety of issues, such as on gun control and whether he would support normalizing U.S. relations with Iran.
Clinton got some much-needed praise from President Obama in a Politico interview published on Monday, exactly a week before Iowans hold the nation's first nominating contest for the November 8 election.
While never explicitly criticizing Sanders, a senator from Vermont whose campaign is focused on pledges to redress social inequality and contain Wall Street excesses, Obama praised Clinton's experience and suggested several times that Clinton's messages are grounded in realism.
"(S)he’s extraordinarily experienced — and, you know, wicked smart and knows every policy inside and out — (and) sometimes (that) could make her more cautious, and her campaign more prose than poetry," Obama said.
(Editing by Mary Milliken)