NEW YORK (AP) — Deepening their increasingly bitter feud, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders aggressively challenged each other’s judgment to be president in Thursday night’s Democratic debate, wrangling over Wall Street banks, the minimum wage and gun control.
The showdown in Brooklyn came at a pivotal moment in the party’s primary campaign, with Clinton leading in the delegate count but Sanders generating huge enthusiasm for his surprising candidacy.
The Vermont senator took a biting and often sarcastic tone as he sought to chip away at Clinton’s credibility. He cited her support for the unpopular Iraq war and for free trade agreements, as well as her willingness to accept money through a super PAC, as evidence that she lacks the needed judgment to lead the nation.
Still, Sanders backed away from previous statements questioning Clinton’s qualifications, saying the former secretary of state does have the “experience and intelligence” to be president.
Clinton made little effort to hide her irritation with Sanders’ challenging of her qualifications, saying that while she has been “called a lot of things in my life, that was a first.” She also cast Sanders as unprepared to implement even his signature policy proposals, including breaking up big banks.
“I think you need to have the judgment on day one to be commander in chief,” she said.
The debate was the first for the Democratic candidates in five weeks. It came ahead of Tuesday’s primary in New York, a high-stakes contest with a huge cache of delegates at stake.
For Clinton, a win in her adopted home state would blunt Sanders’ recent momentum and put his pursuit of the nomination further out of reach. A Sanders upset over Clinton would shake up the race, raising fresh concerns about her candidacy and breathing new life into the Vermont senator’s campaign.
The Democratic primary has been fought for months on familiar terrain. Clinton has cast Sanders’ proposals for breaking up banks and offering free tuition at public colleges and universities as unrealistic. Sanders has accused Clinton of being part of a rigged economic and political system, hammering her repeatedly for giving paid speeches to Wall Street banks and refusing to release the transcripts.
Clinton continued to struggle to explain why she has not released the transcripts, saying only that she’ll do so when other candidates are required to do the same thing. She tried to raise questions about Sanders’ own openness for not releasing his income taxes.
The senator pledged to release his most recent tax returns on Friday, and said there would be “no big money from speeches, no major investments” in the disclosures.
The candidates also sparred over raising the federal minimum wage, with Sanders expressing surprise as Clinton voiced support for efforts to set the hourly pay rate at $15, the level he has long backed.
“I don’t know how you’re there for the fight for 15 when you say you want a $12 minimum wage,” he said. Clinton then clarified that while she does support a $12 hourly minimum wage, she would sign legislation raising that level to $15.
Sanders has won a string of recent primary contests, including a big victory earlier this month in Wisconsin. But because Democrats award their delegates proportionally, he’s struggled to cut into the lead Clinton took earlier in the voting. He’s also failed to persuade superdelegates — the party insiders who can back the candidate of their choice regardless of how their states vote — to switch their loyalties from Clinton.
Clinton has accumulated 1,289 pledged delegates from primaries and caucuses while Sanders has 1,038. Her lead grows significantly when the superdelegates are added in: 1,758 for Clinton and 1,069 for Sanders.
It takes 2,383 to clinch the Democratic nomination. Sanders would need to win 68 percent of the remaining delegates and uncommitted superdelegates to reach that figure.
Despite his long mathematical odds, Sanders has vowed to stay in the race through the party’s convention in July. Backed by legions of loyal supporters, he’s amassed impressive fundraising totals that give him the financial wherewithal to do just that.
Julie Pace reported from Washington.