LAS VEGAS, Nevada — As the Democratic presidential candidates spar over who would best uphold President Obama’s legacy, Sen. Bernie Sanders Thursday suggested Obama has faced racist opposition from Republicans while also refusing to disown his one-time call for a primary challenger to the president.
"The idea that there can be a primary where different ideas get floated and debated, I don’t think that that is terrible," Sanders said in a wide-ranging town hall hosted by MSNBC less than 48 hours ahead of Nevada’s first-in-the-west caucus Saturday.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton committed to introducing an immigration reform bill in her first 100 days in office as president but declined to commit to releasing transcripts from her speeches to private groups like Goldman Sachs.
"I am happy to release anything I have whenever everybody else does the same," Clinton said in response to question from a Sanders supporter, "because everybody in this race, including Sen. Sanders, has given speeches to private groups. Everybody else does the same because every other candidate in this race has given speeches to private groups, including Sen. Sanders."
With the candidates working hard to appeal to African-American voters, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has criticized Sanders for saying in an interview in the runup to Obama’s 2012 reelection bid that a primary challenger would help push Obama to the left.
Moderators Chuck Todd and Jose Diaz-Balart played video of Sanders’ 2011 comments and asked him to respond. Sanders dismissed the question as “a media issue,” adding, “This is this is one thing I said on a radio show many, many years ago.”
Appearing after him, Clinton fired back at Sanders for criticizing Obama. He "wasn’t really even a Democrat until he decided to run for president," she said to some boos from the crowd. "It’s true!"
But throughout the forum, Sanders also defended President Obama. While responding to a question on anti-Islam bias, the senator suggested that the president’s race helps explain the vitriolic opposition he has faced.
"No one asked me if I was a citizen or not, and my dad came from Poland,” Sanders said, referring to the so-called "birther” movement that has questioned Obama’s legitimacy as president. "Gee, what’s the difference? Maybe the color of my skin."
It was one of several moments likely to stand out from the town hall, many elicited by questions from the audience.
Sanders called himself a “strong feminist” when asked if he considers himself a feminist. He went on to say that Gloria Steinem once “made me an honorary woman” while campaigning for him.
Not surprisingly given the large Latino population in Nevada, immigration was a major topic in the forum. Sanders promised to make reform a “top priority,” but said, “I’m not a dictator here” when pressed on a time table. He noted the difficulty in getting a bill on the controversial topic through Congress.
Clinton, meanwhile, made several new commitments on immigration reform. In addition to promising to introduce immigration legislation in Congress during her first 100 days in office, Clinton said she would repeal the three- and 10-year bars against returning immigrants, while also pledging to provide college vouchers for recipients of Obama’s DACA program.
Clinton also faced several audience questions about trust, including one from a young woman who said her generation wants a “rebel” and not a career politician.
Sanders also defended his self-described Democratic Socialism. “I’m not looking at Venezuela, I’m not looking at Cuba — I’m looking at countries like Denmark, Sweden," he said.
And he rejected the idea that his single-payer health care plan would lead to rationing of care, saying that the current system rations care by depriving millions of Americans of coverage.
“If you need a knee replacement, you might need to wait for that,” Sanders acknowledged under a single-payer plan before promising that important issues would be addressed.
The race in Nevada has become tighter than expected, with the only major poll in recent months showing Sanders trailing Clinton by just a single percentage point.
Nevada may be Sanders’ best chance to win a state with a large minority community, which would be critical for helping him win other states down the line and convince Democrats he can represent the party’s diverse coalition.
Clinton pulled out a victory in Nevada in 2008 against Barack Obama but drew slightly fewer delegates from the state. Clinton also beat Obama among Latinos nationwide. Sanders had a late start to the race but arrived here with a head of steam after a landslide win in New Hampshire and narrower-than-expected loss in Iowa.
"I want to get this nomination as quickly as possible," Clinton said. But asked about the state of the race, she suggested she knew she was in this for the long haul.
"I’ve won one, he’s won one, then we’ve got 48 to go," she said.