Washington (AFP) – Two days after her humiliating New Hampshire defeat, White House hopeful Hillary Clinton sought to regain the upper hand against her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders in their debate Thursday (Feb 11), denouncing his proposals as unrealistic and costly.
Clinton, who is keen to strike a new path as the presidential campaign moves south and west, quickly went on the offensive, hammering the senator from Vermont on health care and his plan to make university education free for all.
She also sought to blunt Sanders’s criticism of her cosy ties to Wall Street and reconnect with women voters, all while emphasising her overall experience thanks to her time as secretary of state under President Barack Obama.
“I have said many times I am not asking people to support me because I’m a woman,” she said on the debate stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“I am asking people to support me because I think I am the most qualified, experienced and ready person to be the president and the commander-in-chief.”
After their bruising battle in Iowa, won by a razor-thin margin by Clinton, and the thumping win for Sanders in the Granite State earlier this week, the pair were relatively civil, discussing efforts to end institutional racism and improve the lives of minorities.
Their most heated clash came over health care and Sanders’s assertion that his plan for a single-payer system would save American taxpayers money.
“Based on every analysis that I can find by people who are sympathetic to the goal, the numbers don’t add up and many people will be worse off than they are right now,” Clinton said.
Continuing her assault, Clinton embraced a typical Republican line of attack to demonise Sanders, saying his plans would likely increase the size of the federal government by about 40 per cent.
“We have a special obligation to make clear what we stand for, which is why I think we should not make promises we can’t keep,” Clinton said.
She also suggested Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, was aiming to dismantle Obama’s landmark health care program in favor of his own plan.
Sanders bristled: “I’ve fought my entire life to make sure health care is a right for all people”.
“We’re not going to dismantle anything,” he insisted, explaining that middle-class families would pay US$500 (S$698) more in taxes while receiving 10 times that amount in the reduction of health care costs.
Clinton is looking to get back on track in the next contests in Nevada on Feb 20 and South Carolina a week later – two states where Hispanics and African Americans play key roles in the presidential nomination battle.
Sanders is looking to build on his stunning 22-point blowout win in New Hampshire by reaching out to minority groups, with whom he has struggled to build a strong support base.
Clinton must try to blunt Sanders’s momentum without alienating young voters, including young women, who are flocking to his “political revolution” message.
She has tried to distance herself from Sanders by presenting herself as the pragmatist who can get things done in Washington, including addressing income inequality and campaign finance reform – the core of his message.
In a bid to perhaps draw more young voters to her side, Clinton embraced one of his trademark lines.
“There aren’t enough good-paying jobs, especially for young people, and, yes, the economy is rigged in favour of those at the top,” she said.
Sanders meanwhile landed one of his best zingers of the night when Clinton was talking about how much her proposals would cost.
“Secretary Clinton, you’re not in the White House yet,” he said.
Peeling African Americans away from Clinton will be crucial for Sanders, especially in South Carolina, where, according to exit poll data, some 55 per cent of Democratic voters in 2008 were black.
Sanders weighed in during the debate on minority issues, saying it was essential to implement criminal justice reform and stop overpolicing black neighbourhoods.
He also sought to broaden the pro-Sanders coalition.
“We are fighting for every vote that we can get from women, from men, straight, gay, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans,” he said.
The two candidates jousted over foreign policy, with Clinton touting her substantial experience and Sanders again slamming her vote for the Iraq war in 2002 when she was in the Senate, and for supporting regime change in Libya.
“Judgment matters as well,” he said pointedly.
Clinton, well aware of Obama’s continued popularity in South Carolina among Democrats, aligned herself with the president Thursday (Feb 11), saying he fails to get the credit he deserves for salvaging the US economy after the financial crisis.
And she hit Sanders for calling the president weak and a disappointment, describing it as the kind of criticism “I expect from Republicans.” Sanders shook his head, and replied: “That is a low blow.”