Contentious Miami Democratic debate features distinct Hispanic flavor

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton interrupt each other during the presidential debate Wednesday at Miami-Dade College in Miami.
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton interrupt each other during the presidential debate Wednesday at Miami-Dade College in Miami. The Associated Press

They had debated just four days earlier, but when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders took each other on in Miami Wednesday night, the Democratic presidential debate felt different. More pressing. More intense. And, of course, a little more en español.

What changed from Sunday’s debate to Wednesday’s were Tuesday night’s primaries, in which Sanders pulled off a stinging, surprise victory over Clinton. Now Clinton may have to fight more to win next week in Ohio, which votes Tuesday – as does Florida.

No question, Florida was Wednesday’s target audience.

For the first time, Clinton and Sanders were asked about Cuba. Both support President Barack Obama’s reestablished diplomatic relations – Clinton took credit for implementing it as former secretary of state – and lifting the trade embargo, but Clinton used harsher language to describe Fidel and Raúl Castro. Sanders, a democratic socialist, visited Cuba under the Castros several times.

“I hope very much, as soon as possible, it becomes a democratic country, but on the other hand, it would be wrong not to state that in Cuba, they’ve made some good advances in healthcare,” Sanders said. “They’ve made some progress in education.”

Clinton pounced, recalling an old Sanders interview in which he spoke about the “revolution of values” on the Caribbean island.

“I just couldn’t disagree more, if the values are that you oppress people, you disappear people, you imprison people, even kill people,” she said, to the most extended applause she received from the Sanders-friendly audience at Miami Dade College’s Kendall Campus.

The crowd also cheered questions about climate change, which Sanders and Clinton used as an opportunity to talk about how Miami is one of the cities most threatened by rising seas.

Univision and The Washington Post co-hosted the debate. Univision’s main studios are in Doral; it aired the debate with Spanish dubbing, while CNN simulcast it in English.

A Washington Post-Univision poll released Wednesday found Clinton ahead by 64-26 percent in Florida. A Quinnipiac University poll also released Wednesday showed Clinton topping Sanders 62-32.

Sanders’ challenge was to adapt his message, which is singularly focused on the economy, for voters who also care deeply about immigration. The Vermont senator has talked about immigration as an economic issue as well – one linked to wage stagnation, an argument Republicans, including Donald Trump, also make.

Data curated by InsideGov

As a presidential candidate, Sanders has sounded more empathetic about the plight of immigrants in the country illegally. But Clinton nevertheless hammered him for voting against a 2007 comprehensive immigration reform bill – Sanders objected to a guest-worker program provision he said would lead to exploitation. Sanders said “of course” worker abuse “leads to a race to the bottom of all of our people” – but he noted he did vote for immigration legislation in 2013.

Not good enough, countered Clinton: “Imagine where we would be today if we had achieved comprehensive immigration reform nine years ago.”

Univision moderators Maria Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos found blemishes in Clinton’s immigration record too, such as when she said she’d send back Central American children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border fleeing violence in their countries. Clinton promised not to deport children or nonviolent criminals as president. Sanders followed suit.

Data curated by InsideGov

In general, Clinton seemed to get more pointed questions, including over her private-server emails as U.S. secretary of state. The audience let out a collective “Oooh” when Ramos asked if she would drop out should the Justice Department indict her.

“Oh, for goodness – that is not going to happen. I’m not even answering that question,” she said.

Clinton had two shining moments. In one, she made people laugh. In the other, she offered an unusually reflective glimpse into herself.

The laughter came from Clinton’s sarcasm in an answer to a question about how her past U.S. Senate votes for a border wall along Mexico differed from Trump’s own promised wall.

“He’s talking about a very tall wall, right?” she said, a skeptical look in her eye. “A beautiful, tall wall.” The crowd roard. “The most beautiful, tall wall – better than the Great Wall of China! – that would run the entire border, that he would somehow, magically, get the Mexican government to pay for.”

“It’s just fantasy!”

The introspection came after a question from Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty about how the Washington Post-Univision poll found only 37 percent of Americans consider Clinton honest and trustworthy. Clinton called that figure “painful.”

“I’m not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama, so I have a view that I have to do the best I can, get the results I can, make a difference in people’s lives,” Clinton said.

Clinton has repeatedly shown emotion as a politician when she’s under pressure. In the 2008 presidential campaign, a New Hampshire woman asked her how she got out the door every day. Clinton’s eyes welled with tears, and the candid moment helped Clinton defeat Obama in the state.

Miami Herald staff writers Monique O. Madan and Amy Sherman contributed to this report.

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