DERRY, N.H. — Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders traded barbs Wednesday night over who best embodies progressive values.
At a CNN-sponsored town hall in Derry, New Hampshire, ahead of next Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary, Sanders slammed Clinton, arguing that she’s out of step with the party’s base on issues ranging from campaign finance to climate change, trade and the Iraq war.
“I do not know any progressive who has a super PAC and takes $15 million from Wall Street,” Sanders told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “That’s just not progressive. As I mentioned earlier, the key foreign policy vote of modern American history was the war in Iraq. The progressive community was pretty united in saying, ‘Don’t listen to Bush. Don’t go to war.’ Secretary Clinton voted to go to war.”
Clinton shot back in her session following Sanders, quipping that she was “amused” that the Vermont senator appears to consider himself the “gatekeeper on who’s progressive.”
“So I’m not going to let that bother me,” she said. “I know where I stand.”
The tough exchange came on a day of escalating tension between Clinton and Sanders. Since Monday night’s Iowa caucuses, which Clinton narrowly won, the two have traded sharp words over the ideological direction of the Democratic Party in the post-Barack Obama era. Still, the race isn’t nearly as negative as the Republican primary contest, which was dominated on Wednesday by personal attacks among Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson.
One of the more revealing exchanges came when Cooper referred to Sanders’ frequent call for a “political revolution” and asked Clinton what would be wrong with that. Clinton paused before responding, “That’s for Sen. Sanders to explain.”
And, harkening back to one of her most famous quotes from the 1990s, Clinton said she still believes in a “vast right wing conspiracy.”
“Don’t you?” she asked. “It’s gotten even better funded. They brought in some new multi-millionaires to pump the money in.”
Meanwhile, Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, defended his own credentials as a member of the Democratic Party, noting that the party’s leadership on Capitol Hill has placed him in high-ranking positions on congressional committees.
“Of course I am a Democrat and running for the Democratic nomination,” he said.
Sanders pushed back on the suggestion that Clinton is a better general-election candidate than he would be. The senator, who has drawn massive crowds to his campaign rallies and has somewhat of a cult following among younger voters, said history shows that Democrats win elections when there is large voter turnout.
There is simply more enthusiasm fueling his campaign than Clinton’s, he said: “An objective assessment would say there is more excitement and energy in our campaign.”
He also took a shot at Trump, calling him a candidate who doesn’t support working Americans. But as much as Sanders doesn’t like the Republican’s agenda, the senator said he would delight in taking him on in November.
“I want Trump to win the Republican nomination and I would love the opportunity to run against him,” he said. “I think we would win by a lot.”
He also insisted that he’s the underdog in the Democratic race despite his commanding lead in New Hampshire polls.
“Of course we’re an underdog. We are taking on the most powerful political organization in the country,” Sanders told Cooper in another clear swipe at Clinton. “We started this campaign nationally, as you well know, 40, 50, points behind Secretary Clinton … I think it’s fair to say we have come a pretty long way in the last nine months.”
Clinton trying to narrow gap in New Hampshire
Polls in New Hampshire suggest the primary will not be as close as the nail-biting Democratic caucuses in Iowa. Sanders, exploiting his high favorability in a state that borders his stomping ground of Vermont, has a strong advantage, leading Clinton 55% to 37% in the latest CNN Poll of Polls.
The Democratic primary may turn out to be the only contest in the 2016 race where Sanders faces the burden of high hopes compared to Clinton, the clear front-runner in national surveys.
But with her Iowa victory in her back pocket, and as she looks forward to looming nominating elections in South Carolina and Nevada where she is a strong favorite, Clinton can enjoy a short vacation from expectations in New Hampshire.
“We are going to have a contest of ideas,” Clinton told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an interview earlier this week.
“I think it’s important people understand that good ideas are one thing, but you got to know how to implement. You’ve got to have a record of getting results. And I’m taking my ideas and my record to the people of New Hampshire this week.”