MILWAUKEE – Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battled for the crucial support of black and Hispanic voters in a Democratic debate, a polite but pointed contest that marked a shift in the primary toward states with more minority voters.
After splitting the first two states in the state-by-state primary contest with Sanders, Clinton also deepened her assertion Thursday night that her unexpectedly strong rival was energizing voters with promises “that cannot be kept.” And she continued to closely align herself with President Barack Obama, who remains popular particularly with black Democrats.
Seeking to boost his own support with minorities, Sanders peppered his typically economic-focused rhetoric with calls to reform a “broken criminal justice system.”
“At the end of my first term, we will not have more people in jail than any other country,” he said.
In one of many moments of agreement between the candidates, Clinton concurred on a need to address a criminal justice system that incarcerates a disproportionate number of minorities. But she cast her proposals for fighting racial inequality as broader than his.
“We’re going to emphasize education, jobs and housing,” said Clinton, who was endorsed earlier in the day by the political action committee of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The candidates both vowed to pursue comprehensive immigration reform, using the emotional issue to draw a contrast with Republicans who oppose allowing many of the millions of people in the United States illegally to stay. Both disagreed with a new series of raids authorized by Obama to arrest and deport some people from Central America who recently came to the country illegally.
“We should be deporting criminals, not hardworking immigrant families who do the very best they can,” Clinton said.
Both candidates were largely restrained in their head-to-head contest — a contrast to their campaign’s increasingly heated rhetoric on the campaign trail. While Clinton played the aggressor in the previous Democratic debate, she is mindful of a need to not turn off Sanders’ voters, particularly the young people that are supporting him in overwhelming numbers.
Clinton is hoping to offset Sanders’ backing from those young Americans by drawing support from the black and Hispanic voters who make up a big share of the electorate in Nevada, South Carolina and other states that come next on the primary calendar.
In the more crowded Republican field, South Carolina is next. Billionaire Donald Trump, fresh from a commanding win in New Hampshire, will be tested by the state’s more conservative voters.
The former secretary of state sought to discredit some of the proposals that have drawn young people to Sanders, including his call for free tuition at public colleges and universities and a plan for a government-run, single-payer health care system. Clinton said those proposals come with unrealistic price tags. And she accused Sanders of trying to shade the truth about what she said would be a 40 percent increase in the size of the federal government in order to implement his policies.
Sanders didn’t put a price on his policies, but neither did he shy away from the notion that he wants to expand the size of government.
“In my view, the government of a democratic society has a moral responsibility to play a vital role in making sure all our people have a decent standard of living,” Sanders said.
Sanders has focused his campaign almost exclusively on a call to break up big Wall Street banks and overhaul the current campaign finance system that he says gives wealthy Americans undue influence. His campaign contends that his message will be well-received by minority voters, arguing that blacks and Hispanics have been hurt even more by what he calls a “rigged” economy.
Sanders’ strength has startled Clinton’s campaign. He defeated her by more than 20 points in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, drawing the majority of men, women, independents and young people.