MIAMI — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders waged an acrimonious debate duel Wednesday, throwing punches on immigration reform, auto bailouts and health care as they drew up fresh battle lines ahead of crucial primaries next week that could dictate how long their quest for the Democratic nomination will last.
Clinton returned to her attack on Sanders for opposing the auto bailout. She noted that in December 2008, she and Sanders voted to support rescue for Detroit that was blocked by Republicans. But before President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the bailout was folded into a bailout bill for financial firms.
“Sen. Sanders voted against it,” Clinton said at the Univision debate in Miami. “That is his perfect right to vote against it, but if everyone had voted as he voted, we would not have rescued the auto industry.”
It was a noteworthy position for Clinton since she took a similar stance in the run-up to the Michigan primary, betting that it would resonate in the heart of the auto industry.
But it didn’t — she lost Michigan to Sanders in a surprise result and exit polls there indicated Democratic voters trusted the Vermont senator more on issues related to the economy and trade. And it’s not clear that the strategy will play any better in the Midwestern states going to the polls next week, including Ohio and Illinois.
Sanders hit back by again tying Clinton to Wall Street. He argued the broader bill was the “bailout of the recklessness, irresponsibility and illegal behavior of Wall Street. It was the Wall Street bailout.”
‘Very close race’
If Clinton was shaken by her loss in Michigan, she didn’t show it on the debate stage.
“It was a very close race,” Clinton said. “I have won some, I have lost some.”
She added that with her win in Mississippi, she won 100,000 votes more than Sanders on Tuesday and that she built her lead in the delegate race.
Clinton bristled when asked about her use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state. Moderator Jorge Ramos pressed Clinton on whether she would drop out of the presidential race if she is indicted.
“Oh for goodness, that is not going to happen,” Clinton said. “I’m not even going to answer that question.”
But she permitted herself a rare moment of self-examination about her personal and political liabilities, when she was asked about perceptions that she was not honest and trustworthy, a reality that she said was painful for her.
“I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama,” Clinton said. “So I have a view that I just have to do the best I can, get the results I can, make a difference in people’s lives, and hope that people see that I’m fighting for them.”
Sanders, meanwhile, relished his Michigan victory, saying he pulled off what “some people considered one of the major political upsets in modern American history.”
Clashing on immigration
The candidates waged an extended confrontation over immigration reform.
Clinton rebuked Sanders for opposing a comprehensive immigration reform effort during President George W. Bush’s administration. Sanders said he supported the overall goal of the bill but was opposed to guest-worker provisions that he believed would undercut wages for U.S. workers and impose punitive conditions on foreign laborers.
But both rivals pledged that they would not deport undocumented immigrants who were not accused of a crime and they supported a path to citizenship for such people.
And they took aim at GOP front-runner Donald Trump and his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border and his vow to deport 11 million undocumented migrants.
Clinton mocked the billionaire for vowing to build “the most beautiful, tall wall, better than the Great Wall of China.”
Sanders slammed Trump for the “vulgar, absurd idea,” of rounding up undocumented migrants and deporting them.
Sanders also renewed his attack on Clinton for failing to release transcripts of her speeches to top financial institutions after she left the State Department. Asked whether he believed that she was saying one thing in public and another thing to Wall Street firms privately, Sanders said, “That is exactly what releasing the transcripts will tell us.”
Clinton, who has said she will release her transcripts if other candidates — including Republicans — do the same, said she had the toughest plan to rein in Wall Street.
Sanders hit back: “I am dangerous for Wall Street.”