FLINT, United States (AFP) – With the Democratic presidential nomination within reach, Hillary Clinton Sunday sought to repel sharp ideological attacks from party rival Bernie Sanders, while training some fire on Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump’s bigotry, his bullying, his bluster are not going to wear well on the American people,” Clinton said, turning some of her attention to a general election, in which she vowed to take the moral high road.
“I will do whatever I can as the Democratic nominee to run a campaign you’ll be proud of,” she said. “I don’t intend to get in to the gutter with whoever they nominate.”
Nine months after launching her presidential campaign, Clinton appears to be on the cusp of securing her party’s nomination, despite a spirited and stronger-than-expected challenge from leftist Bernie Sanders.
Sanders has won a string of state-wide nominating primaries, including in Nebraska and Kansas on Saturday, and he is projected to win Sunday’s party vote in Maine.
But thanks to Clinton’s own victories and strong second place showings, she maintains a two-to-one lead in all-important nominating delegates.
After three months of voting, a general election between Democrat Clinton and Republican Trump seems increasingly likely.
“As of last night Donald Trump had received 3.6 million votes, which is a good number,” Clinton said, remarking on the mogul’s shock electoral success.
But, she added: “There is only one candidate in either party who has more votes than him, and that’s me.”
First thing, first
Still, in a chaotic election year that has seen outsiders tap voter unease, Clinton will not be taking anything for granted, not least Sanders.
Ideological differences between the two Democratic White House hopefuls was thrown into sharp relief Sunday, in a sometimes testy debate in Flint, Michigan, a town where lead-tainted water has poisoned thousands of children.
Clinton and Sanders both criticized Michigan’s Republican governor Rick Snyder, who they said should resign or be recalled from his post for neglecting Flint.
More than 8,000 children in Flint, economically devastated by the closure of General Motors factories, were exposed to lead for more than a year before the tap water contamination was uncovered by citizen activists.
“The governor should resign or be recalled and we should support the efforts of citizens attempting to achieve that,” Clinton said.
“But that is not enough. We have to focus on what must be done to help the people of Flint,” she added, saying federal funds should be released.
Sanders said he had been “shattered” by visiting the city and meeting citizens.
“It was beyond belief that children in Flint, Michigan, in the United States of America in the year 2016, are being poisoned. That is clearly not what this country should be about.”
“I believe the governor of this state should understand that his dereliction of duty was irresponsible. He should resign.”
There was less agreement, however, on the causes of Michigan’s economic woes, a key issue as the state goes to vote on Tuesday.
Seeking to draw contrast, Sanders, a Senator from Vermont, hit the former secretary of state hard for her pro-trade policies and accused her of taking cash from Wall Street, as well as the fossil fuel and pharmaceutical industries.
“Secretary Clinton supported virtually every one of the disastrous trade agreements written by corporate America,” Sanders said to cheers.
Clinton shot back, accusing Sanders of voting against the bailout of the auto industry, which is a major employer in Michigan.
That prompted a feisty exchange.
“I voted to save the auto industry. He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry. I think that is a pretty big difference,” Clinton said.
Sanders suggested that Clinton was talking about a “Wall Street bailout where some of your friends destroyed this economy.”
“Excuse me, I’m talking,” Sanders said sharply as Clinton tried to interject.
“If you are going to talk, tell the whole story, Senator Sanders,” she said.
The tone eventually grew more civil, allowing both Democrats to boastfully compare their debate to a Republican debate last week that descended into allusion and counter-allusion about penis sizes.
“Compare the substance of this debate with what you saw on the Republican stage last week,” Clinton said.
Sanders joked that both had vowed if elected to invest a lot of money in mental health, “and when you watch these Republican debates you know why.”