Sen. Bernard Sanders told fellow presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to hold off on a coronation as Democrats’ presidential nominee as they faced off Thursday, making a plea for black and Hispanic voters as the primaries expand to more racially diverse states.
“You’re not in the White House yet,” Mr. Sanders scolded Mrs. Clinton after she had claimed she was better able to form the kind of coalition to advance Democrats’ agenda, win tax increases and bridge divides of race, ethnicity or sex.
Fiercely battling back against Mrs. Clinton’s attacks, Mr. Sanders questioned the millions of dollars of donations going to political action committees backing the former secretary of state, telling her not to insult voters’ intelligence by saying she’s not affected by that money.
For her part, Mrs. Clinton clung closely to President Obama, defending his record on race relations and his health law, Obamacare, against Mr. Sanders’ plans to scrap it and move toward a fully socialized medical system.
And she questioned how Mr. Sanders would pay for his health, college and other plans, saying it would amount to a 40 percent expansion in the government.
“The numbers don’t add up, and many people will actually be worse off than they are right now,” the former secretary of state said.
The two were squaring off in a debate in Milwaukee as the primary shifts from Iowa and New Hampshire to Nevada and South Carolina, where Hispanic and black voters will play a bigger role in picking the nominee. And both candidates made their pitches to those constituencies, insisting the government needed to play a bigger role in helping them gain access to benefits and protections.
Mrs. Clinton said her appeal went beyond the “angry” voters who have flocked to Mr. Sanders’ economic message, saying she’s built a record of working with minorities and women. And she challenged Mr. Sanders’ expansive health, college and other plans, saying it would hike government spending by 40 percent but he’s never said how he’d pay for it.
“It is absolutely fair and necessary for Americans to vet both of our proposals, to ask the really hard questions about what is it we think we can accomplish why do we believe that and what would be the results for the average American family,” Mrs. Clinton said.
She said for Mr. Sanders’ free public college plan to work would require buy-in from those like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican.
“I’m a little skeptical about your governor actually caring enough about higher education to make any kind of commitment like that,” Mrs. Clinton said, looking directly to the audience in Milwaukee.
Mrs. Clinton’s move seemed calculated to isolate Mr. Sanders as a one-note candidate with his message of economic inequality.
Mr. Sanders didn’t back down from his central message, saying he embraces a bigger role for government and said that’s the kind of intervention needed to rein in the wealthy he said are taking advantage of the rest of the country.
And he said if he’s elected, it would be historic, on par with putting the first woman in the White House.
“What our campaign is indicating is that the American people are tired of establishment politics, tired of establishment economics. They want a political revolution,” he said.
The debate, hosted by PBS, came hours after Mrs. Clinton secured the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus political action committee, which said she’s earned it because she’s done the most to support blacks seeking office, and to build the Democratic Party itself.
In an effort to appeal to the African-American constituency, both candidates slammed police officers for both over-policing minority neighborhoods leading to higher arrests and their violence toward unarmed black men.
“We need fundamental police reform — clearly,” Mr. Sanders said. “We are sick and tired of seeing videos on television of unarmed people, often African-Americans, shot by police officers.”
Mrs. Clinton spoke on the untimely death of Donte Hamilton, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Milwaukee. The officer wasn’t prosecuted for the crime as the district attorney found the use of force to be self-defense. Mr. Hamilton was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.
“We have to restore policing that will actually protect the communities that police officers are sworn to protect,” Mrs. Clinton said, adding their was “systemic racism” within our criminal, educational and economic systems that needs to be addressed.
Mrs. Clinton is counting on black voters in South Carolina to help right her teetering campaign, after virtually tying Mr. Sanders in Iowa and losing by more than 20 percentage points in New Hampshire.
The CBC PAC’s backing brings ground troops. The organization will send surrogates to help rally support for Mrs. Clinton ahead of South Carolina’s Feb. 27 primary, when more than half of the primary electorate is expected to be black.
Before then the two will square off in Nevada, which holds its caucuses on Feb. 20.
Hispanic voters are expected to play a significant role in that contest, and both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders have tried to court their votes by promising a lenient policy toward illegal immigrants.
Both have said they would even outbid President Obama, who has attempted to grant a deportation amnesty to as many as 5 million illegal immigrants. Most of that amnesty has been blocked by federal judges who say Mr. Obama broke the law, but Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton have backed the president and said they would expand his move to encompass still more illegal immigrants.
“In fact I would go further,” Mr. Sanders said Thursday, adding that he’s eyeing citizenship rights for all 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Mrs. Clinton agreed, but challenged Mr. Sanders’ own commitment to the issue, saying he voted against the 2007 immigration bill that would have worked toward legalization. Mrs. Clinton, in the Senate at the time, voted for the legislation.
Mr. Sanders admitted he voted against the bill, but said that was because its guest-worker provisions for future workers were akin to “slavery.”
Already having chased three other major candidates from race, Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton have turned the primary into a battle over which one of them can lean further to the left. Mrs. Clinton describes herself as a progressive who can get things done — a jab at Mr. Sanders’ lack of an extensive legislative record.
Mr. Sanders, meanwhile, questions Mrs. Clinton’s commitment to key liberal issues, saying she has close ties to Wall Street which makes her a bad choice for Democrats seeking someone to police big banks.
After Mrs. Clinton said she’s never been swayed in her positions by her financial backers, Mr. Sanders questioned her.
“People aren’t dumb,” the senator said. “Why in God’s name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess just for the fun of it?”