Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders made a conspicuous play for Latino and African American voters as they lingered on questions of race and sparred over their records on immigration during a combative Democratic debate.
The focus on inequality in the justice system and on conditions faced by hard-working immigrant families was unambiguous as the candidates turn to contests in Nevada and South Carolina, where the next phase of their head-to-head will play out.
Clinton seemed undaunted after her heavy defeat in New Hampshire and moved quickly to put Sanders on the defensive as she challenged the credibility of his proposals on healthcare and taxes.
He once again criticised her judgment on foreign policy and sought to damage her by highlighting her links to big-money donors.
However, the sixth Democratic debate really turned on issues of race as the contest moves away from the mostly white early states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
“I want to tackle those barriers that stand in the way of too many Americans right now,” Clinton said in her opening statement. “African Americans who face discrimination in the job market, education, housing and the criminal justice system. Hardworking immigrant families living in fear who should be brought out of the shadows so they and their children can have a better future. Guaranteeing that women’s work finally gets the equal pay that we deserve.”
Both candidates promised large-scale criminal justice reform and comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living and working in the United States.
In a fiery exchange over immigration, Clinton accused Sanders of voting against the 2007 immigration reform bill that included a pathway to citizenship. Sanders defended his vote, arguing that civil rights and immigrant groups were also opposed. “‘I don’t apologize for that vote,” he declared. Then he turned on Clinton for her contention that children fleeing violence and poverty in Central America should be “sent back”.
Clinton also disavowed a controversial remark by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who told voters at a rally in New Hampshire that there was a “special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”.
“I have spent my entire adult life making sure that women are empowered to make their own choices, even if that choice is not to vote for me,” Clinton said, acknowledging that young women have so far favored Sanders.
Sanders largely stuck to his script, even when given the opportunity to move off message.
“This campaign is not only about electing someone who has the most progressive agenda, it’s about bringing tens of millions of people together to demand that we have a government that represents all of us and not just the 1% who today have so much economic and political power,” Sanders said in his closing speech.
Clinton closed the night insisting: “I am not a single-issue candidate and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country,” knocking Sanders’ singular focus on extricating big money from politics.
For much of the night it felt like there were three Democrats on the stage in Milwaukee as the candidates spent so much time debating the record of Barack Obama. Clinton seemed determined to claim the mantle of protector of the Obama legacy, an unambiguous signal to the voters of South Carolina and Super Tuesday states like Alabama and Georgia, which will cast their primary votes on 1 March.
Clinton said Obama did not get the credit he deserved and said Sanders had not stood with the president, calling him “weak” and “disappointing”. She accused her opponent of making personal attacks of a kind she would have expected to hear from Republicans.
“Madam Secretary, that is a low blow,” Sanders said. “I have worked with President Obama for the past seven years… President Obama and I are friends… it is really unfair to suggest I have not been supportive of the president.”
In a final slapdown, Sanders said: “One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.”
On foreign policy, Clinton conceded that more still needed to be done to protect America at home and abroad from the threat of terrorism.
And she singled out the violent, divisive rhetoric of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. “American Muslims are on the frontline of our defence… they need to feel not just invited but welcomed within the American society. So when somebody like Donald Trump and others stirs up the demagoguery against American Muslims, that hurts us at home. It’s not only offensive, it’s dangerous.”
Sanders again harked back to his vote against the Iraq war and called Clinton’s judgment into question as he pointed to her record of support for regime change. He said his foreign policy doctrine would be based on avoiding unintended consequences and ensuring that US forces “do not get bogged down in perpetual warfare in the Middle East”.
Clinton shot back: “I do not believe a vote in 2002 is a plan to defeat Isis in 2016.”
The foreign policy section of the debate went down a strange historic cul-de-sac as Sanders denounced Henry Kissinger, the grand old man of Republican diplomacy, sharply criticising Clinton for acknowledging that she had turned to her 92-year-old predecessor for advice while she was secretary of state.
Sanders called Kissinger “one the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country…Henry Kissinger is not my friend.”
Clinton responded with a jibe, demanding of Sanders: “Who do you listen to on foreign policy? We have yet to know who that is.”
However, whilst there was clear division on foreign policy, there was no doubt that the greatest tension of the night revolved around courting black and Latino voters.
Earlier in the day, Clinton received the endorsement of some of the most senior black American politicians, including from civil rights legend Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who downplayed Sanders’ early activism in the civil rights movement, which the senator has said was formative and inspired his politics.
“I never saw him. I never met him,” Lewis said at a press conference for the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, which endorsed Clinton. “I was chair of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee for three years, from 1963 to 1966. I was involved with the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery and directed to voter education project for six years. But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton.”
During the debate, Clinton mentioned the case of Dontre Hamilton, a young black man who was shot 14 times by a white Milwaukee police officer in April 2014. The officer did not face criminal charges. Hamilton’s mother, Maria, watched the debate from the audience as a guest of Clinton.
Earlier, Clinton has announced plans to campaign with the mothers of Trayvon Martin, a black teen killed by a neighborhood watchman, Eric Garner, a black man who died after being placed in a police chokehold, and Sandra Bland, a black woman who was found hanged in a Texas jail after being pulled over for a broken tail light.
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