Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders sharply criticized party front-runner Hillary Clinton in a debate in Michigan on Sunday for backing trade deals blamed for costing the state thousands of jobs.
Clinton fired back at Sanders in a surprisingly testy debate, arguing that his opposition to the 2009 auto bailout could have left the industry in ruins and cost millions of Michigan jobs.
“If everybody had voted the way he did, I believe the auto industry would have collapsed, taking 4 million jobs with it,” Clinton, the former secretary of state, said of Sanders.
Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, noted Clinton’s support for a variety of free-trade deals that he said killed American jobs, starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiated by her husband, President Bill Clinton.
He has also questioned the sincerity of her late conversion to opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-nation Pacific Rim trade deal.
Clinton “has discovered religion on this issue, but it’s a little too late,” he said. “Secretary Clinton supported virtually every one of these disastrous trade agreements written by corporate America.”
At one point, the two contenders interrupted each other, a rare occasion in a race that has been relatively polite compared with the Republican contest.
“Excuse me, I’m talking,” Sanders said to Clinton when she tried to interrupt. “If you’re going to talk, tell the whole story,” Clinton responded.
The exchange came in a debate in Flint, Michigan, where both candidates expressed outrage at the city’s water contamination crisis and demanded state and federal money begin to flow immediately to begin relief and rebuilding efforts.
The debate comes as Sanders struggles to slow Clinton’s march to the nomination to face the Republican candidate in the Nov. 8 general election to succeed Democratic President Barack Obama. Media organizations predicted that Sanders would win Sunday’s Maine caucus.
‘DISGRACE BEYOND BELIEF’
Both candidates condemned local officials who they said abetted the crisis in Flint, and demanded the resignation of Republican Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan.
“People should be held accountable, wherever that leads,” Clinton said, adding an investigation should determine who in state and federal government was responsible. “There has to be absolute accountability.”
“What is going on is a disgrace beyond belief,” Sanders said, plugging his plan to spend $1 trillion to rebuild crumbling infrastructure across the United States.
The crisis in Flint, a predominantly black city of 100,000, was triggered when an emergency city manager installed by Snyder switched the city’s water supply to the nearby Flint River from Lake Michigan to save money.
The change corroded Flint’s aging pipes and released lead and other toxins into the water supply, exposing thousands of residents including children to high lead levels that have sparked serious health problems.
Both Democratic presidential contenders, vying for support from black voters in Michigan and nationally, have linked the crisis to broader racial and economic inequities.
Republican presidential candidates have steered clear of Flint on the campaign trail. When U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida was asked about Flint during Thursday’s debate in Detroit, he defended Snyder and said the “politicizing” of the crisis was unfair.
CLINTON LEADS IN POLLS
Opinion polls show Clinton, 68, leading in Michigan and Mississippi, which vote on Tuesday. She also leads in polls in several big states that vote on March 15, including Ohio and Florida.
Sanders, 74, faces a tough challenge erasing Clinton’s lead of about 200 bound delegates who will choose the nominee at the July convention. Since the Democratic race awards delegates in each state proportionally, she will keep gathering delegates even in those states she loses.
The Democratic debate comes one day after Sanders won contests in Kansas and Nebraska, and Clinton won the bigger prize of Louisiana, a win that allowed her to slightly expand her delegate lead.
On the Republican side, front-runner Donald Trump and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas were angling on Sunday for a two-man race for the party’s presidential nomination after splitting four state nominating contests at the weekend.
The wins for Trump, 69, and Cruz, 45, on Saturday were a setback for party leaders, who have largely opposed Trump and hinted they prefer Rubio, 44, who took third or fourth in Saturday’s four Republican contests.
Cruz has been predicting a two-man race with Trump for several weeks.
On Sunday, Rubio was projected to win in Puerto Rico, his second victory to date in nominating contests across U.S. states and territories. Ohio Governor John Kasich, 63, the only other candidate remaining from a starting field of 17, has yet to win any state.
The Republican competition moves on Tuesday to Michigan, Mississippi, Idaho and Hawaii, where Trump hopes to expand his lead in delegates ahead of a party convention in July.
In an interview on Sunday before the Flint debate, Clinton played down the legal uncertainty over a federal investigation into her use of a private email server while she was Obama’s secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.
“Well there is no basis for that,” she told CBS’ “Face the Nation” program after being asked about fears in her party that she or her colleagues from the State Department may be prosecuted.
She said she was delighted that Bryan Pagliano, a technician who managed her email system, was cooperating with a federal criminal investigation in exchange for immunity.