Sanders, Clinton clash on autos, water at Michigan debate

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Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton rules out Sanders while playing 'who'd you rather' to chose running mate It's time for Sanders to exit stage left Navy SEAL congressman endorses Trump MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersClinton rules out Sanders while playing 'who'd you rather' to chose running mate It's time for Sanders to exit stage left Trump courts energy industry MORE had some of their sharpest exchanges of the entire Democratic presidential campaign during Sunday's debate in Flint, Mich., just days before the state's primary.

Clinton sought to use Sanders's opposition to the 2008 bill bailing out the financial sector against him, arguing that by voting against it he was also voting against the funding that saved the U.S. auto industry.

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It was an attack designed to anger the crowd in Michigan, a state that lives and dies by its auto manufacturing.

“If everybody had voted the way he did, I believe the auto industry would have collapsed, taking 4 million jobs with it,” Clinton said.

The entire attack by Clinton seemed to get under Sanders's skin, leading to a harsh rebuttal from the Vermont senator that could be used against him by Clinton’s allies later in the campaign.

"Excuse me, I'm talking," Sanders said after Clinton tried to cut in during their heated exchange over support for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.

The crowd booed Sanders for his harsh tone and repeated the jeers at a similar moment later in the debate, during a tangle with Clinton over legal immunity for gun sellers and manufacturers.

“Can I finish, please?" Sanders exclaimed then.

Clinton continues to lead at the polls ahead of Tuesday's Michigan primary, where 130 pledged delegates are up for grabs, but Sanders appears to be gaining.

Most polls taken before March put Clinton more than 20 points ahead, but two from the past few days showed her ahead by 11 points and 17 points.

Though Clinton is leading Sanders in Michigan, it’s a state where his scathing assessment of U.S. trade policy is popular. 

It's also a state with a large black population, a source of strength for Clinton. Her success with minority voters has helped her open up a substantial lead in delegates over Sanders during the contest so far. She’s won about 670 pledged delegates compared to Sanders’s 470, though Sanders notched another victory Sunday in Maine’s caucuses.

Clinton has support from more than 450 of the party’s superdelegates while Sanders only has about 20 on his side, according to The Associated Press. 

The debate’s backdrop, the majority-black Michigan city reeling from a toxic lead contamination in its public water system, prompted significant discussion about the crisis and racial equality. 

While Sanders has long called for Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to step down and be held responsible for the situation, Clinton used the debate to unveil that she takes the same position

“Amen to that,” she said after Sanders mentioned Snyder in his opening statements.

"I agree, the governor should resign or be recalled. We should support the efforts of citizens trying to achieve that. But that is not enough. We have to focus on what must be done to help the people of Flint.”

The pair pushed back when Bryn Mickle, the editor of The Flint Journal, asked if the candidates were just "using this crisis for political points." 

"I think the fear, and legitimate fear, of the people of Flint is that at a certain point, the TV cameras and CNN is going to disappear and then people are going to be left struggling in order to live in a safe and healthy community," Sanders said.

"All I can say is if you check my record going back a long time, I have stood with those who are hurting, I have stood with those who have no money, and I have taken on virtually every powerful special interest in the United States of America.”

Race was a central issue in the debate, with CNN host Don Lemon directly confronting Clinton with a question about why black people should trust her in light of her support for her husband’s 1994 crime bill, which many believe unnecessarily incarcerated many young black men. Clinton largely ducked the question, pointing out that Sanders had supported the bill too.

Sanders drew some criticism on social media for his answer to a question about his racial blind spots as a white, privileged man. 

"When you are white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto, you don’t know what it’s like to be poor, you don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you are walking down a street or dragged out of a car," Sanders said. 

"We must be firm in making it clear that we will end institutional racism and reform a broken criminal justice system." 

Sunday night’s debate is unlikely to change the contours of the race. Clinton and Sanders in many ways reinforced the images that voters already have of them. Clinton was cautious and often gave long and complex policy-laden answers to questions, while Sanders offered blunter, and more liberal, solutions.

The contrast was best encapsulated when the two were asked whether they would support fracking. Clinton gave a long answer with various scenarios in which she would not support fracking, but she declined to outright condemn the energy extraction process.

After Clinton finished, Sanders said, “My answer is a lot shorter. No, I do not support fracking.”

While the tenor of the debate turned harsh at times, both candidates kept one eye on the general election. When asked about Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRyan aide: 'We've not told the Trump campaign to expect an endorsement' Trump donates M to veterans’ charity Trump: NM governor ‘not doing the job’ MORE’s criticism of her email server controversy, Clinton ducked the question and instead used the opportunity to bash the GOP front-runner. 

And a few minutes later, when she commented that the Republican debate last Friday — during which Donald Trump bragged about his manhood — had been so much less substantive than Sunday's Democratic debate, she gave Sanders a segue for his largest applause line of the night. 

“We are, if elected president, going to invest a lot of money into mental health,” Sanders said.

“And when you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest in mental health.”

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