MILWAUKEE (AP) — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battled for the crucial backing of black and Hispanic voters in Thursday night's Democratic debate and clashed heatedly over their support for Barack Obama as the presidential race shifted toward states with more minority voters.
Clinton, who has cast herself as the rightful heir to Obama's legacy, accused Sanders of diminishing the president's record and short-changing his leadership.
"The kind of criticism I hear from Sen. Sanders I expect from Republicans. I do not expect it from someone seeking the Democratic nomination," Clinton said in a sharp exchange at the close of the two-hour debate in Milwaukee. Her biting comments followed an interview in which Sanders suggested that Obama hadn't succeeded in closing the gap between Congress and the American people — something that Obama himself has acknowledged.
Sanders responded: "Madam Secretary, that is a low blow." And he noted that Clinton was the only one on the stage who had run against Obama in the 2008 presidential race.
Long viewed as the overwhelming front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination, Clinton has been caught off guard by Sanders' strength, particularly his visceral connection with Americans frustrated by the current political and economic systems.
Clinton's own campaign message has looked muddled compared with his ringing call for a "political revolution," and her connections to Wall Street have given Sanders an easy way to link her to the systems that his supporters want to overhaul.
Seeking to stem Sanders' momentum, her campaign has argued that his appeal is mostly limited to the white, liberal voters who make up the Democratic electorate in Iowa and New Hampshire. Clinton's team says that as the race turns now to South Carolina, Nevada and other more diverse states, her support from black and Hispanic voters will help propel her to the nomination.
Trying Thursday night to boost his own support from minorities, Sanders peppered his typically economic-focused rhetoric with calls to reform a "broken criminal justice system" that incarcerates a disproportionate number of minorities. "At the end of my first term, we will not have more people in jail than any other country," he said.
In one of many moments of agreement between the candidates, Clinton concurred on a need to fix the criminal justice system but cast her proposals for fighting racial inequality as broader than his.
"We also have to talk about jobs, education, housing, and other ways of helping communities," said Clinton, who was endorsed earlier in the day by the political action committee of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Both candidates were restrained through much of their head-to-head contest — a contrast with their campaigns' increasingly heated rhetoric. Clinton is mindful of a need to not turn off Sanders' voters, particularly the young people who are supporting him in overwhelming numbers.
HILLARY CLINTON: "We have more than 750,000 donors and the vast majority are giving small contributions. ... We both have a lot of small donors."
THE FACTS: Her presidential run is being supported by wealthy donors in ways that Bernie Sanders' is not. Last year's fundraising reports show that Sanders raised fully 72 percent of his campaign money from people who gave $200 or less, while for Clinton those donors accounted for just 16 percent of her funds.
BERNIE SANDERS: "A male African-American baby born today stands a one-in-four chance of ending up in jail. That is beyond unspeakable."
THE FACTS: Sanders exaggerated the rate of incarceration for black males. A 2003 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics said, "About 1 in 3 black males, 1 in 6 Hispanic males, and 1 in 17 white males are expected to go to prison during their lifetime, if current incarceration rates remain unchanged." But that was only a projection. The report went on to say that at the time, 16.6 percent of adult black males had actually ever gone to prison, or 1 in 6. Since then, the incarceration rate for black men has actually gone down instead of up, according to the Sentencing Project.— AP