Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders clash in fiery NY debate
Ferocious exchanges between candidates before state’s make-or-break primary
Brooklyn was the scene of the latest flashpoint between the Democratic presidential candidates as front-runner Hillary Clinton and challenger Bernie Sanders clashed in a fierce televised debate on Thursday night.
The ferocity of the exchanges reflected the high stakes of Tuesday’s make-or-break primary in New York that will determine whether Mr Sanders, the one-time long-shot who has given the favourite a run for her money, has any hope of blocking Mrs Clinton’s path to the party’s nomination.
The CNN-broadcast debate was something of a home derby for the candidates, taking place near where Mr Sanders was born and in a state that Mrs Clinton served as US senator for two terms in the 2000s.
The back-and-forth between the presidential hopefuls was punctuated by energetic cheers and applause from both sets of rival supporters, matching the electricity on stage that could be expected of a feisty New York fight.
“I love being in Brooklyn,” said Mrs Clinton, after being interrupted by cheers, of the New York borough where her campaign headquarters is based.
In what may be the final Democratic debate, both White House hopefuls cranked up their attacks. Mr Sanders came into the debate with momentum on his side with victories in the seven of the past eight state contests and Mrs Clinton fought back hard aiming to protect her clear lead.
The Vermont senator mocked the former US secretary of state on her lucrative ties to Wall Street and questioned her judgment on her support for the Iraq war, trade deals and accepting money from “special interests”.
Mrs Clinton (68) hit back, criticising Mr Sanders (74) for his checkered legislative record on gun control and seeking to undermine his capacity to solve complex problems and not just identify them.
On the subject of fitness to lead, an issue that the two have sparked over for the past week, Mr Sanders jabbed his rival from the outset of the debate, the ninth televised encounter between the candidates.
“Does secretary Clinton have the experience and the intelligence to be a president? Of course she does. But I do question her judgment,” he said.
The former first lady, pointing to Mr Sanders’s unconvincing recent interview with the New York Daily News, said he had trouble explaining how he would execute his core objective: breaking up the big banks.
“It’s easy to diagnose the problem; it’s harder to do something about the problem,” charged Mrs Clinton, escalating her criticism that Mr Sanders will struggle to follow through on his lofty campaign pledges.
The Vermont socialist said, under pressure from Mrs Clinton that he would release his 2014 tax return on Friday and goaded his rival by saying that his returns would show “no big money from speeches” - a dig at the $225,000 she received per speech to Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs.
Mr Sanders was unable to identify a decision Mrs Clinton made as senator where she favoured banks because of the money she received, however.
“He cannot come up with any example because there is no example,” Mrs Clinton said to applause from her supporters.
When she pointed out that she called out the banks before the 2007 crash on their risky behaviour, Mr Sanders ridiculed her efforts to rein them in.
“Secretary Clinton called them out,” he said, sarcastically. “Oh my goodness, they must have been really crushed by this. And was that before or after you received huge sums of money by giving speaking engagements?”
Mrs Clinton said that she would not release transcripts of her Goldman Sachs speeches until all candidates release their paid speeches.
Mrs Clinton landed her heaviest blows tying Mr Sanders’s opposition to a law blocking families of victims of gun murders from suing gun dealers who sold the firearms to the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre.
She described their opposing positions on gun controls as “a serious difference between us”.
Asked if he owed the Sandy Hook families an apology, Mr Sanders said he didn’t. She tied his support for the law to a lobbying campaign by the National Rifle Association to stop legal action against the gun industry.
“The law that Senator Sanders voted for that I voted against, giving this special protection to gun manufacturers and to dealers, is an absolute abdication of responsibility on the part of those who voted for it,” she said.
Mrs Clinton hit him with “he kept his word to the NRA”.
When Mr Sanders laughed at Mrs Clinton’s denial that she was blaming looser gun regulations in his home state of Vermont for gun violence in New York, the former secretary of state shot back with devastating statistics.
“It’s not a laughing matter,” she said, pointing to the 33,000 people a year who are killed or commit suicide or die in accidents from guns.
On her weak flank, Mrs Clinton’s pivots – saying that she would support a minimum hourly federal wage of $15, as opposed to $12 previously, and expand social welfare benefits – left her looking exposed.
She apologised for the 1994 crime bill her husband passed as president – and which she supported – that created a culture of mass incarceration and extended non-violent prison terms for black Americans.
“I’m sorry for the consequences that were unintended and that have had a very unfortunate impact on people’s lives,” said Mrs Clinton.
While the second-time presidential candidate was forced to explain her past positions, Mr Sanders pitched himself as the future of their party. “History has outpaced Secretary Clinton,” he said on the minimum wage issue.
“I will do everything I can to open the Democratic Party to the young people who are flocking into our political campaign,” he said.
Dismissing Mrs Clinton’s commanding lead, Mr Sanders said: “I believe that we’re going to win this nomination and I believe that we’re going to obliterate Donald Trump or whoever the Republican candidate is.”
In the post-debate “spin room” at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Sanders campaign aide Tad Devine told reporters he believed the Vermont senator could still win the nomination even if he loses in New York.
“We have to do well here in New York but there are plenty of events between California [June 7th] and Washington DC at the end [June 14th] for us to make up the difference,” he said.
Jennifer Palmieri, director of communications for Mrs Clinton’s campaign, questioned her rival’s plan to fight for the nomination on the floor of the Democratic national party convention in Philadelphia in July.
“She will fight and participate all the way but we expect to go into the convention with a majority of the popular vote [and] a majority of the pledged delegates,” she said.
“If Senator Sanders wants to try to convince delegates there to overturn the will of the Democratic electorate, I don’t think that is going to be very successful.”