TIME 2016 Election

Clinton and Sanders Walk a Careful Line on Women at Debate

New Hampshire Primary Voting Election 2016
Landon Nordeman for TIME Anjuli Willmer sports double flags at a New Hampshire primary night rally for Democratic presidential candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at Concord High School on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Concord, N.H.

"I believe it's most important that we unleash the full potential of women and girls in our society"

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders treaded carefully on the issue of women voters and the potential for the first female president at a Democratic debate Thursday.

At a debate moderated for the first time by two women, Clinton was pressed almost immediately about a recent remark by her surrogate, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that there’s a “special place in hell” for women who don’t support other women—a remark she disowned in so many words.

“I have said many times, I am not asking people to support for me because I am a woman,” Clinton said. “I’m 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.”

Sanders, meantime, was asked how he felt about possibly blocking the first woman president. He responded by pointing out that a self-described democratic socialist would also be a first and obliquely referred to the fact that he is the first Jewish person to have won a presidential primary.

“Well, you know, I think, from a 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.

Darren Hauck—ReutersDemocratic. presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on stage at a debate in Milwaukee on Feb. 11, 2016.

The two Democratic candidates mostly agreed on so-called women’s issues ranging from contraception to equal pay.

At the debate, Sanders touted his “a lifetime 100 percent pro-choice voting record,” while Clinton touted an endorsement from NARAL Pro-Choice America. As president, Sanders said he would “end the absurdity of women today making 79 cents on the dollar compared to men,” while Clinton said she would get women the “equal pay that we deserve.” Both candidates called for paid family leave.

And they agreed on the importance of those issues in this election, with Clinton arguing that there is a “whole national effort to try to set back women’s rights” while Sanders said that “women’s rights are under fierce attack all over this country.”

But in the race to the nomination, Sanders has had the edge among women voters so far. Though Clinton has strong support among older female voters, young women in the past two primary contests have leaned more toward Sanders. In New Hampshire, where Clinton lost by 22 points, Sanders garnered 55% of the female vote, according to NBC exit polls.

Both face pitfalls, however.

Clinton attempted to narrow the gap with women voters by calling on female politicians to stump for her in recent days, but ran into trouble when Albright used her oft-repeated line about “a special place in hell” and feminist icon Gloria Steinem argued that young women were interested in Sanders because “the boys are with Bernie.” Both remarks backfired, especially among younger women.

Sanders, meantime, has tried to shut down so-called “BernieBros,” young male supporters whose tone-deaf statements sometimes dip into outright misogyny.

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