Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders meet on stage at the beginning of their ninth debate, held at the Duggal Greenhouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Thursday. Photo by Ray Stubblebine/UPI | License Photo
NEW YORK, April 14 (UPI) -- Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders opened their ninth debate with sharp attacks on each other five days ahead of the crucial New York primary.
Sanders fired first when asked about his recent criticism that Clinton was not "qualified" to be president.
"I've known Secretary Clinton, how long, 25 years? I said that in response to the kind of attacks we were getting form the Clinton campaign," Sanders said. "Does Secretary Clinton have the experience and intelligence to be president? Of course she does. But I do question her judgment. Her judgment that voted for the war in Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in our nation's history."
Clinton shot back, underscoring her long history in government, and said so in a state that twice elected her to the U.S. Senate.
"Sen. Sanders did call me unqualified. I've been called a lot of things in my life, that was a first," Clinton said.
She then pivoted to a disastrous interview Sanders did with the editorial board of the New York Daily News, where he was pressed on specifics about his signature campaign issue, his call to break up the largest Wall Street banks. Sanders acknowledged he did not know how it would actually work.
"Talk about judgment, talk about the kinds of problems he had about questions about even his core issue, breaking up the banks," Clinton said. "When asked, he could not explain how that would be done and when asked about a number of foreign policy issues, he could not answer ... I think you need to have the judgment on Day 1 to be both president and commander-in-chief."
At several points during the debate, both candidates addressed each other with sarcasm. At other times, they shouted over each other, drawing a rebuke from CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer: "If you're both screaming at each other the viewers won't be able to hear either of you."
During a portion of the debate over gun control, Clinton chided Sanders who began laughing as Clinton criticized his record on the issue.
"It's not a laughing matter. Ninety people a day die ... due to guns," Clinton said.
Sanders picked up his harsh criticism of Clinton's decision to make lucrative paid speeches to Wall Street banks. Clinton gave the same response as in previous debates, saying campaign donations do not preclude her from standing up to special interests, and that as a senator from New York she "called out" Wall Street while in office.
"Secretary Clinton called them out?" Sanders said. "Oh my goodness, they must have been really crushed by this. And was this before or after you received huge sums of money by giving speaking engagements for them?"
Pressed by moderators later to cite a specific instance where Clinton's ties to Wall Street led to her supporting big banks, Sanders fell back on his generic criticism of Clinton's super PAC, which has accepted donations from the financial sector.
"He cannot come up with any example because there isn't any example," Clinton said.
The candidates also sparred over the 1994 crime bill, which Clinton's husband pressed, and which Sanders voted for in the Senate. Both candidates have expressed reservations about some of the consequences, which included stricter federal drug sentences that have led to hundreds of thousands of individuals imprisoned for relatively minor, non-violent drug users.
"I supported the crime bill," Clinton said. "My husband has apologized, he was the president who signed it. I'm sorry for the consequences that were unintended and have had a very unfortunate impact on people's lives."
Sanders was pressed on his comments critical of Clinton's use of the phrase "super predators" to describe gang members that crime bill was meant to target. He responded: "Because it was a racist term and everybody knew it was a racist term."
Clinton multiple times tried to position herself as the more pragmatic choice for Democrats, dismissing Sanders' policy positions on single-payer healthcare and free college tuition as political fantasy.
"It's is easy to diagnose the problem. It's harder to do something about the problem," Clinton said.
Thursday's debate comes at a pivotal moment in their primary campaigns.
Polls have shown Clinton with a double-digit lead in the state where she twice won election to the U.S. Senate. If Clinton takes a lion's share of the 291 delegates from New York, she could effectively put the race away, reducing Sanders' chances of overtaking her to all but nil.
Sanders badly needs to change the dynamic of the race and Thursday's debate may have been the last opportunity to do so. Starting Friday, he will have four more days to campaign in New York before votes are cast on Tuesday.