Just two days ahead of "Mega Tuesday," former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders both touted their experience and commitment to a more just and equal America in tonight's Democratic town hall hosted by CNN and TV One in Columbus, Ohio.
The Democratic presidential hopefuls took limited shots at one another in the two-hour-long forum, which saw each candidate take the stage separately to answer questions from CNN's Jake Tapper, TV One's Roland Martin, and undecided voters gathered at the town hall held at the Ohio State University.
With less than 48 hours before voters in Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina head to the polls — and decide the allegiance of more than 1,000 delegates — both Democrats ramped up their rhetoric, setting their sights squarely on Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
Sanders took the stage first, beginning by answering a question about the increasingly severe violence at rallies hosted by his Republican rival. When Tapper noted that Trump has blamed the escalating confrontations at his rallies on supporters of Sanders and Clinton, the Senator from Vermont did not mince words.
“Donald Trump is a pathological liar,” Sanders said to enthusiastic applause. “He’s gonna pay the legal fees of somebody who committed a terrible act of violence. That means that Donal Trump is literally inciting violence for his supporters. … That is an outrage, and I would hope that Mr. Trump tones it down, big time, and tells his supporters that violence is not acceptable.”
Hillary Clinton similarly blasted the Republican front-runner in her opening remarks. “Trump is trafficking in hate and fear,” she said. "He actually incites violence in the way that he urges his audience on. … We know that has been incredibly bigoted toward so many groups.”
She also rejected Trump's claims that the violence at his rallies has been instigated by Democratic supporters. “Donald Trump is responsible for what happens at his events,” said Clinton. “He is the person who, for months now, has not just been inciting violence, he has been applauding it.”
Dr. Amit Majmudar, a radiologist in Dublin, Ohio, and the son of immigrants who is also the state’s first poet laureaute, asked both candidates to outline their three-point “anti-Trump game plan.”
Sen. Sanders began his reply with an effort to debunk the critique that “Bernie, you’re a nice guy, but you just can’t win the general election.” That’s a critique the self-described democratic socialist says he resents.
“Take a look at virtually every national poll that has been done,” Sanders said. “Take a look at the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that has been done two or three days ago. Guess what? Bernie Sanders was defeating Donald Trump by 18 points. And in virtually, not all, but virtually all of those polls, my margin over Trump is wider than Secretary Clinton’s. … So, first point, I think you look at the polling — I am the strongest Democratic candidate to beat Donald Trump.
“Second point is, Republicans win when the voter turnout is low. … I think any objective assessment of this campaign will suggest that the excitement and the energy for large voter turnout, is with the Bernie Sanders campaign.
“Third point, to answer your question. The way you beat Trump is to expose him. And he can be exposed in many, many levels. Not the least of which; this is the guy who is a billionaire, but doesn’t think we should raise the minimum wage above $7.25 an hour. This is a guy who goes on a Republican TV debate and says “wages in America are too low.” Tell that to the people in Ohio that wages are too low. This is a guy who believes, in defiance of all science, that climate change is a hoax.
And of course, on top of all that, is the issue that you raised. The American people are not going to elect a president who is insulting Mexicans, Muslims, women, veterans, insulting virtually everybody who is not quite like Donald Trump. Thank god most people are not quite like Donald Trump.”
The crowd went wild with laughter and applause.
When Dr. Majmudar asked former Secretary Clinton the same question, she had an answer at the ready.
“Let me give you a little bit of context,” Clinton began. “Where we are right now, before everybody votes on Tuesday, I’m the only candidate who has gotten more votes than Trump. I ave 600,000 more votes than Donald Trump. And I am building a broad-based, inclusive campaign, that I think is the best way to defeat him; by convincing people that this, really, is the highest-stakes election they’ve ever been involved in. And that they’ve got to, whether they’ve ever voted before, that they’ve got to come out and vote against Donald Trump, and for me.”
Then Clinton turned to her decades-long career in public office.
“Secondly — one of my advantages, if I’m so fortunate enough to be Democratic nominee, is that the Republicans have been after me for 25 years,” she said, to applause and bemused laughter.
“There isn’t anything they haven’t already said about me. And in the course of dealing with all of this incoming fire from them, I have developed a pretty thick skin. I am not new to the national arena, and I think whoever goes up against Trump better be ready. And I feel I am the best-prepared and ready candidate to take him on.
“Finally, I really believe there are going to be a lot of arguments against him, that we can look forward to. I’m not going to spill the beans right now, but suffice it to say, there are many arguments against him. But one argument I am uniquely qualified to bring, because of my service as secretary of state, is what his presidency would mean to our country and our standing in the world.
I am already receiving messages from leaders; I’m having foreign leaders ask if they can endorse me to stop Donald Trump. I say, ‘No, this is up to Americans, thank you very much. But I get what you’re saying and where you’re coming from.’
"Lots of times, foreign policy doesn’t play as big a role as I think it should. … Only the hard choices come to the president. If they’re not hard choices, somebody along the way has a chance to make a decision. So when you end up in the Situation Room, on a serious foreign policy issue, like I was there with that small group, advising the President whether to go after Bin Laden; it takes incredible seriousness, diligence, judgment, a temperament that is not going to be pushed one way or the other depending on who said what to you today, and I believe that I will have an opportunity to really focus in on how dangerous a Donald Trump presidency would be for our standing, for our safety, for the peace of the world, and I think we can be successful doing that.”
Clinton also addressed questions from voters about fracking and clean energy, the Affordable Care Act and rising health care costs, helping trade unions and minorities, and gun violence in America, especially as it impacts low-income communities.
In an emotional exchange, the former Secretary of State was challenged on her stance on the death penalty. Ricky Jackson spent 39 years in prison for a murder he did not commit — and during his incarceration, spent time on death row. He teared up when recounting how "perilously close" he came to his own execution for a crime he did not commit. He told Clinton that he was exonerated thanks to the "heroic efforts" of the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati.
"In light of what I've just shared with you, and in light of the fact that there are documented cases of innocent people who have been executed in our country, I would like to know, how can you still take your stance on the death penalty, in light of what you know right now," Jackson asked.
Watch Clinton's response below:
— TV One (@tvonetv) March 14, 2016
Clinton was wrapping up what has likely been a difficult weekend, after the former Secretary of State on Friday erroneously claimed that former First Lady Nancy Reagan and President Ronald Reagan helped “start a national conversation” about the HIV and AIDS epidemic that ravaged the country in the 1980s.
Clinton’s misguided praise — which she originally made in a televised interview at the former First Lady’s funeral — sparked immediate ire from LGBT Americans who recalled the Regans' infamous, deadly silence as more than 40,000 Americans died from the disease by 1987. Even the Human Rights Campaign, which endorsed Clinton early in the electoral season, disavowed Clinton’s revisionist history.
Within two hours of making her original claim, Clinton issued a brief apology on Twitter, but on Saturday night, she published a lengthy statement on Medium acknowledging that she “made a mistake, plain and simple.”
“To be clear, the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS,” Clinton’s statement continued. “That distinction belongs to generations of brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, along with straight allies, who started not just a conversation but a movement that continues to this day.”
At tonight's town hall, Sanders continued to ride a wave of enthusiasm after his victory in the Michigan primary earlier this month, as the state had been forecast to go to Clinton. He noted tonight that his campaign has won primaries or caucuses in nine states, then added in a stage-whisper that he believes he can take Ohio, too. He answered questions about his plan to provide free higher education at public institutions across the country, and was challenged by moderator Roland Martin about his position on charter schools that are privately funded, as the commentator noted that African-Americans in Ohio overwhelmingly support such programs.
The first question from an undecided voter continued the discussion on violence, as the sister of an unarmed black man killed by police in Ohio last year during a routine traffic stop asked Sanders what he would do, as president, to stem the tide of officer-involved civilian deaths.
After offering his condolences for her loss, Sanders pledged that his Department of Justice would initiate an automatic investigation into every single incident where someone died in police custody or during an interaction with police.
“Any police officer who breaks the law, like any other person, must be held accountable,” Sanders said.
Sanders repeated several of his standard campaign platforms about combatting income inequality, making the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes, supporting small businesses, and penalizing companies that move jobs overseas or store record profits in offshore accounts to evade tax responsibility.
In a subsequent question about international trade agreements, Sanders launched another salvo at the Republican front-runner.
“No one is talking about building a wall around the United States,” said Sanders, waiting a beat as the audience began laughing. “Well, there is one guy talking about it. So let me rephrase that; no rational person is talking about building a wall around the United States.”
In responding to a final question from Tapper, Sanders reflected how campaigning for the highest office in the land has changed him.
“It has profoundly changed me,” Sanders said. “I come from a small state… But when you go around the country, you meet so many extraordinary people. [Including Latinos, Native Americans...] … And I have seems so many young people who are optimistic about the future of this country, and are prepared to fight to be sure that this country becomes what it is supposed to become.”