ABOARD AIR BERNIE — Sen. Bernie Sanders is standing up for Killer Mike after the Atlanta-based rapper stood onstage at a Sanders rally and quoted a feminist activist as saying "a uterus doesn't qualify you to be president of the United States."
And he was even more direct when asked about Bill Clinton's remarks on the campaign trail that seemed to compare fervor for Sanders on the left with the populist anger that created the tea party on the right.
Aboard his campaign plane Thursday, Sanders told reporters that Killer Mike was quoting someone else — but that he agreed with the basic premise.
"What Mike said essentially is that ... people should not be voting for candidates based on their gender, but based on what they believe. I think that makes sense," said Sanders, who has mounted an unexpectedly strong challenge against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"I don't go around, no one has ever heard me say, 'Hey guys, let's stand together, vote for a man.' I would never do that, never have."
Killer Mike was one of several introductory speakers at a rally at historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta when he made the comments.
"I talked to Jane Elliott," the rapper said, referring to an international feminist advocate, "and she said, 'Michael, a uterus doesn't qualify you to be president of the United States.' You have to have a policy that's reflective of social justice."
If elected, Hillary Clinton would be the first woman president, and her supporters immediately criticized the remarks. The abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America labeled the rapper's comments "inappropriate and sexist" and called on Sanders to denounce them.
"I think the media is blowing this thing up," Sanders told reporters on his plane Thursday, dismissing questions about the comments as a "gotcha media game."
Sanders' remarks came during a nearly 20-minute session with reporters aboard his campaign plane, a full-sized chartered Boeing 737, en route to Nevada, where Democratic caucuses will be held Saturday.
The state will be his first test with the minority voters, both African-American and Latino, that are critical to selecting nominees in the Democratic primary. And it comes as Clinton's campaign is ratcheting up attacks on Sanders to halt the momentum he earned with a 22-point victory in New Hampshire and a razor-thin loss in Iowa.
Sanders was cautiously optimistic about his chances in Nevada, where polling is notoriously unreliable and the results are often unpredictable.
"I don't know if we're going to win or not. It's very close," Sanders said. "We are working very hard to get a large voter turnout. If we get a large voter turnout I believe we will win."
On Thursday, Sanders defended his record of fighting on behalf of African Americans.
"I don't want to be lectured on my support for civil rights," Sanders said as his plane flew from a Washington meeting with civil rights leaders to Las Vegas. "I was a young man, I was there, and I have been there for my entire life."
He said Clinton campaign criticism of his record on the subject was "a reflection of a campaign in disarray, a campaign that believed they were entitled to have the nomination and suddenly they're finding, with people being actually involved and not just the establishment, they're in trouble."
Sanders in turn criticized Hillary Clinton for supporting the welfare reform bill that her husband, Bill Clinton, signed when he was president in the 1990s.
"The welfare rights bill, I think many of the leading civil rights advocates in this country will tell you, was extraordinarily detrimental to the African-American community," Sanders said. "I spoke out against it. I voted against it. Secretary Clinton supported it."
As for the former president, he said: "Bill Clinton was the president who led the effort to deregulate Wall Street, was the president who fought for the disastrous NAFTA trade agreement and was the president who pushed this so-called welfare reform, which was absolutely disastrous for low-income people in general and the African-American community in particular."
Sanders' analysis: "I think what the establishment is getting nervous about is that the American people are starting to stand up and say enough is enough."