Sanders, Clinton draw battle lines on Obama, foreign policy

Sanders, Clinton draw battle lines on Obama, foreign policy
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A relatively muted and wonky Democratic presidential debate on Thursday night dissolved at the end into accusations by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE that Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies Clip shows Larry David and Bernie Sanders reacting after discovering they're related For now, Trump dossier creates more questions than answers MORE is abandoning President Obama with his criticism of the party's standard-bearer. 

After a decisive loss in the New Hampshire primary this week, Clinton is seeking to right the ship of her campaign in the more diverse states of Nevada and South Carolina, the latter a place where the president is beloved among Democrats.

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While most of the PBS debate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was somewhat noncontentious, despite the fiery week on the trail, the candidates emerged from their slumber for a heated final 10 minutes.  

"Today, Sen. Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test, and this is not the first time he has criticized President Obama. In the past, he's called him weak, he's called him a disappointment, he wrote a forward for a book that basically argued voters should have buyer's remorse," Clinton said. 

"The kind of criticism that we've heard from Sen. Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans, I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama."

The crowd cheered as she praised Obama and landed her blow on Sandersan Independent senator from Vermont running for the Democratic nomination. But he quickly struck back by calling Clinton's remark a "low blow." 

He lauded the president for making "enormous progress" on improving the economy but argued that the president should not be treated as infallible. 

"But you know what? Last I heard, we lived in a democratic society. Last I heard, a United States senator had the right to disagree with a president, including a president who's done such an extraordinary job. So I have voiced criticisms. You're right. Maybe you haven't. I have," he said.

He noted that he is friends with the president, who stumped for Sanders as a senator. 

"It is really unfair to suggest I've been unsupportive of the president. I have been a strong ally with him on virtually every issue," he said.

"One of us ran against Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAll five living former presidents to attend hurricane relief concert Overnight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance | Puerto Rico's water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents' right to sue Interior moves to delay Obama’s methane leak rule MORE, I was not that candidate."

Clinton, a former secretary of State under Obama, has regularly sought to cast Sanders as not a true member of the Democratic team, most often through repeating his past criticism of the president.  

The accusations could hold important sway in 16 days, when the Democratic primary is held in South Carolina. Obama pushed past Clinton there in their 2008 primary race, ultimately beating her by 29 points, in large part due to overwhelming support from black voters.  

In recent days, African-American Clinton campaign surrogates have launched repeated attacks questioning Sanders's commitment to civil rights and criminal justice reform. 

Sanders faces a major deficit of support among black voters, especially in South Carolina, and has put forth significant efforts over the past weeks looking to close that gap. 

While the beginning portion of the debate centered on race relations and criminal justice, the two candidates mostly sung in tune, each specifically noting their agreement with one another.  

When asked if race relations would be better under a Sanders administration than "they have been," Sanders said "absolutely," pivoting back to a fundamentally economic argument as the reason for improvement.  

"Absolutely, because what we will do is instead of give tax breaks to millionaires, we will create millions of jobs for low-income kids so they are not hanging out on street corners, make sure those kids stay in school and are able to get a college education," he said. 

"When you give low income kids, African-American, white, Latino kids the opportunities to get their lives together, they are not going to end up in jail, they are going to end up in the productive economy, which is where we want them."

One of the more heated moments from the earlier portion of the debate came on campaign finance, building off a question about whether a candidate who takes donations from Wall Street can make unbiased decisions about the financial industry. Clinton also used that moment to display her ties to Obama, noting that his former super-PAC now supports her.  

"[Obama] was the recipient of the largest number of Wall Street donations of anyone running on the Democratic side ever. When it mattered, he stood up and took on Wall Street. He pushed through and he passed the Dodd-Frank regulation, the toughest regulations since the 1930s," she said. 

"So let's not in any way imply here that either President Obama or myself would in any way not take on any vested interest, whether it's Wall Street or drug companies, insurance companies or, frankly, the gun lobby.” 

Sanders pushed back by framing Clinton as naive for thinking that industries are donating without ulterior motives.  

"Let's not insult the intelligence of the American people. People aren’t dumb," he said. "Why in God’s name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess for the fun of it. They just want to throw money around."

He also sought to push Clinton harder on foreign policy, an accepted weakness of his. In an orchestrated moment, he criticized Clinton for her relationship with President Nixon's secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, mentioning that she has spoken favorably about him as a mentor.  

"Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of State in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger," he said, arguing that Kissinger's foreign policy surrounding the Vietnam War led to the rise of extremism in Vietnam and Cambodia.  

Clinton responded by noting that “journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy, and you have yet to answer that.” 

Sanders jumped in with a barb: "It ain’t Henry Kissinger."  

But when Sanders pivoted back to his well-worn argument that his vote against the Iraq War, which Clinton supported, shows he has the foreign policy judgment needed to serve as commander in chief, Clinton parried by arguing that a vote in 2002 is not "a plan to defeat ISIS in 2016." 

"When people go to vote in primaries or caucuses, they are voting not only for the president, they are voting for the commander in chief. And it is important that people really look hard at what the threats and dangers we face are and who is prepared to deal for dealing with them," she said. 

"As we all remember, Sen. Obama, when he ran against me, was against the War in Iraq. And yet when he won, he turned to me, trusting my judgment, my experience to become secretary of State.  

The Democratic candidates met Thursday night, nine days before the party's next nominating contest, Nevada's caucuses. Limited polling in the state from before January showed a significant lead for Clinton, but her team has been careful to downplay expectations despite her strong support among Hispanics and African-Americans, groups that made up 30 percent of the caucus electorate in 2008.