The Democratic debate in Miami on Wednesday began with a fiery clash over immigration policy, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cast Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as a late-comer on immigration reform and Sanders adamantly defending his record.
The first major point of contention was Sanders’ 2007 vote in the Senate against a comprehensive immigration reform bill that won widespread Democratic support. Sanders has defended his vote, saying that it would have created a guest worker program that would have hurt Latino immigrants.
But Clinton said she did not buy his argument. “I think it’s very hard to make the case that Ted Kennedy, Barack Obama, La Raza, United Farm Workers, Dolores Huerta and leaders of the Latino community would have actually supported a bill that promoted modern slavery. That was one of the many excuses not to vote for the 2007,” she said.
Sanders called her attacks disingenuous and criticized the high number of deportations under President Obama, “[President Obama] is wrong on this issue of deportation. I disagree with him on that. I will not deport children from the United States of America,” Sanders said.
The Vermont Senator also criticized Clinton over her suggestion in 2014 that children escaping violence in Central America not be allowed to stay in the United States. “I said welcome those children into this country,” Sanders said. “Secretary Clinton said ‘Send them back.’ That’s a big difference.”
The Democrats’ meeting in the Sunshine State was the last time they share a stage together in March, and it comes one day after splitting victories and delegates in Mississippi and Michigan.
Fireworks flew early in Wednesday night’s debate, with Sanders showing new signs of life, Clinton will hope to quickly dispatch him. But as she looked ahead to a general election, she needed to make sure she doesn’t alienate Sanders’ supporters either. Sanders, meanwhile, drove home his message against political corruption and income inequality with the ferocity of an insurgent who may not have a national platform for much longer.
While Sanders staged a morale-boosting upset in Michigan, Clinton’s lopsided victory in Mississippi won her most of the delegates up for grabs on Tuesday. She is well on her way toward the nomination with a large lead in pledged delegates.
Sunday night’s debate in Flint, as most of the contests, appeared to end in a wash. But even with Sanders hewing close to his core platform and Clinton again demonstrating her nimble grasp of policy, the tone was feistier and more urgent than in previous debates. Sanders was sometimes dismissive of Clinton on Sunday night, adopting a pitch that some critics said was patronizing of the former Secretary of State. His hyperactively wagging finger and bass protestations—“Excuse me, I’m talking,” he said to Clinton on Sunday—were supposed to turn off Michigan voters.
But Sanders still beat expectations by winning Michigan, with some speculating that Clinton’s attacks against Sanders and claims that he opposed the auto bailout backfired.
On Wednesday, Clinton opened by discussing her economic plans to create manufacturing jobs and paint Sanders as a backward-looking candidate, as she did on Sunday’s debate. “You know, if we’re going to argue about the 1990s instead of talking about the future—” Clinton said several times.
Clinton’s aides say she has the advantage in looking ahead and explaining drawn-out policy proposals. “I think Senator Sanders has continued to look backwards and talk about the past in terms of economic policy,” said Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager. “What voters are looking is for candidates to look forward to the future.”
Clinton heads into contests after the debate that should be favorable to her, including Florida, Illinois and North Carolina, while Sanders sees opportunities in states like Ohio and Washington.
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