(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.”
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.”
Put on the defensive, Sanders fired back.
“Secretary Clinton has been going around the country saying ‘Bernie Sanders wants to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, people are going to lose Medicare, people are going to lose their chip program.’ I have fought my entire life to make sure that health care is a right for all people. We’re not going to dismantle anything,” he said.
See also: How might ‘Berniecare’ work?
The exchange on health care put a fine point on a larger debate about whether Sanders could deliver on the ambitious proposals he has put forward during the campaign, and just how big government would grow if he did.
“The best analysis that I’ve seen based on Senator Sanders’ plans is that it would probably increase the size of the federal government by about 40 percent,” Clinton said, adding that the notion that paying slightly higher taxes to receive universal health care was “a promise that cannot be kept.”
Sanders, meanwhile, focused on the economic conditions that he argues justifies an expansion of government.
“When the middle class is disappearing, you have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any country on earth, yes, in my view, the government of a democratic society has a moral responsibility to play a vital role making sure that all of our people have a decent standard of living.”
High stakes on stage
The sixth Democratic debate comes as the two remaining candidates are positioning themselves for the next two nominating contests: the Feb. 20 Nevada caucuses in which union members, Hispanics and cash-strapped homeowners are key constituencies and the Feb. 27 South Carolina primary in which black voters hold considerable sway.
Sanders, who came within a fraction of a point of Clinton in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, won in New Hampshire by collecting majorities among most voter demographic groups other than wealthy Democrats and people over age 65. But his message hasn’t been tested in states that have far more diverse Democratic electorates than those two states.
Before the first votes were cast in the nomination race, Clinton was widely seen as the inevitable Democratic candidate for the 2016 general election. But the margins in the first two contests have fueled an online fundraising boom for Sanders and stirred concerns about Clinton’s weaknesses.
Despite the competitiveness of the race, and Sanders’ contention that he’ll energize enough new voters that Congress will be compelled to go along with his agenda, signs of Democratic enthusiasm for both candidates has been scant so far. Democratic turnout in Iowa was down 28 percent from 2008, when Obama first ran. It was down 13 percent in Iowa. Meanwhile, Republican voter turnout broke records in both states.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in an interview on CNN Thursday that the race could drag on all the way to the July Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
—With assistance from Arit John, David Knowles and Elizabeth Campbell.
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