Contentious Miami Democratic debate features distinct Hispanic flavor

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders face off in a debate moderated by Univision and the Washington Post at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus on Wednesday
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders face off in a debate moderated by Univision and the Washington Post at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus on Wednesday pfarrell@miamiherald.com

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.

Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders revisited some familiar issues during the Democratic debate on Wednesday night at Miami-Dade College in Miami, including Hillary's emails, Trump's candidacy, and each other's political campaign

Given a chance to regret past characterizations of Fidel Castro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Sanders made the sort of admission unusual for politicians in Miami.

“Cuba is an authoritarian, undemocratic country, and I hope very much, as soon as possible, it becomes a democratic country,” Sanders said. “But on the other hand, it would be wrong not to state in Cuba they have made some good advances in health care. They are sending doctors all over the world. They have made some progress in education.”

Clinton pounced, recalling a Sanders interview from the 1980s in which he spoke about the “revolution of values” on the Caribbean island.

“I just couldn’t disagree more. You know, if the values are that you oppress people, you disappear people, you imprison people, even kill people for expressing their opinions, for expressing freedom of speech, that is not the kind of ‘revolution of values’ that I ever want to see anywhere,” she said, to the most extended applause she received from the Sanders-friendly audience at Miami Dade College’s Kendall Campus, which included quite a few students.

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 — and to contrast themselves with their Republican counterparts.

“When you have Republican candidates for president and in Congress telling you that climate change is a hoax, which is Donald Trump’s and other candidates’ position, what they are really saying is, ‘We don’t have the guts to take on the fossil-fuel industry,’” Sanders said.

Clinton plugged her support from South Florida mayors — think Miami Beach’s Philip Levine — and jabbed Sanders for criticizing the Obama-backed Paris agreement on climate change as too weak.

Trump loomed over the debate, in a sort of preview of what a general-election match-up would look like. The most striking question to the candidates: “Is Donald Trump a racist?”

Neither gave a yes-or-no answer.

“I think it’s un-American,” Clinton said when pressed on Trump’s character.

Sanders asserted Americans “are never going to elect” someone who insults Mexicans, Muslims, women and African Americans, referring to Trump’s failure to swiftly disavow support from the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

“And let us not forget that several years ago, Trump was in the middle of the so-called birther movement, trying to delegitimize the president of the United States of America!” Sanders said.

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 Trump, also make.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters turn out near Miami Dade College before the Democratic debate on March 9, 2016.

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.

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 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!” (Her votes — and Sanders’, Clinton pointed out — went to portions of a border “fence.”)

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.

Her answer Wednesday wasn't quite as compelling — and she's in a much more comfortable position than she was against Obama.

But Clinton needs to turn big polls into big enough victories to fend off a post-Michigan reenergized Sanders. And for that, she needs Florida.

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

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