(Bloomberg) — Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, her front-runner status dented by a lopsided loss to Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, adopted her challenger’s assertion that the economy is “rigged” as the two debated who would be the better president for two key party constituencies: women and African Americans.
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Clinton opened Thursday’s Democratic debate by repeating her rival’s characterization of the American economy, a marked shift in her rhetoric that left little room for interpretation.
“I know a lot of Americans are angry about the economy and for good cause,” she said at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, reaching out to voters who’ve been drawn to Sanders. “There aren’t enough good paying jobs especially for young people. And yes, the economy is rigged in favor of those at the top.”
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Just moments earlier, Sanders railed against a corrupt campaign finance system, an economy “rigged” against the middle class and a broken criminal justice system.
Clinton has been criticized for not being able to encapsulate her rationale for running in just a sentence, but she attempted to do so in her closing statement. “I am not a single issue candidate, and I do not believe we live in a single issue country,” she said.
In an attack she’s been winding up for months, Clinton made the case that the Vermont senator doesn’t support President Barack Obama and would not respect his legacy.
Clinton’s comments, which came at the tail end of a foreign policy question, was a direct appeal to Democratic primary voters who nearly universally approve of the president, particularly in Nevada and South Carolina, the next two states to vote.
“Today Senator Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test, and this is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama. In the past, he’s called him weak, he’s called him a disappointment,” Clinton said. “The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans. I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.”
Sanders initially responded viscerally. “Madam Secretary, that was a low blow,” he said. Then, he defended his comments. “Last I heard, a United States senator had the right to disagree with the president, including a president who has done such an extraordinary job. So I have voiced criticisms.”
Fight for females
In the New Hampshire Democratic primary, a majority of female voters sided with Sanders, and Clinton told Thursday’s national audience that she would keep fighting to get their support.
“I am not asking people to support me because I’m a woman,” she said. “I’m asking people to support me because I think I’m the most qualified, experienced and ready person to be the president and the commander-in-chief.”
Clinton also noted that the debate, moderated by PBS’s Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, was an historic moment: out of more than 200 presidential primary debates, Thursday’s was the first in which a majority of the people on the stage — three of four — were women. “So, you know, we’ll take our progress wherever we can find it,” she said.
Sanders said he didn’t worry about thwarting what would be an even more historic moment, if Clinton were to be the first woman elected president, saying that his election also would be historically significant. “From an historical point of view somebody with my background, somebody with my views, somebody who has spent his entire life taking on the big money interests, I think a Sanders victory would be of some historical accomplishment as well,” he said.
Clinton ducked a question about whether her presidency would be better for African Americans than Obama’s, but Sanders answered more definitively. Asked if race relations would be better under a Sanders presidency, he responded: “Absolutely” and listed ways in which economic opportunities for minorities would expand if he were in the White House.
Big ideas vs. math
As she has in past debates, Clinton chided Sanders for pitching unrealistic plans, particularly his proposal for replacing the current Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) system with universal, single-payer health insurance. “This is not about math, this is about people’s lives, and we should level with the American people so they know what we can do to make sure that they get quality affordable health care.”