MILWAUKEE (AP) — In the first Democratic presidential debate since Bernie Sanders' sweeping victory in New Hampshire's primary, the Vermont senator sought to build upon success and introduce himself to voters who may be open to an alternative to Iowa caucuses winner Hillary Clinton.
The former secretary of state, meanwhile, tried Thursday night to assure Democrats worried about her ability to help the party hold onto the White House that she is still the best choice to succeed President Barack Obama.
Here are some takeaways from the debate in Milwaukee:
NEVADA AND SOUTH CAROLINA
The debate was held in Wisconsin, but messages from both candidates throughout the debate were clearly aimed at minority voters in Nevada and South Carolina — the next two states on the primary calendar.
Clinton and Sanders tangled over immigration reform, an issue closely watched by the large Latino community in Nevada, and discussed ways of addressing institutional racism, an issue of interest to black voters, who make up more than half of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina.
Said Sanders, "What would motivate me and what would be the guiding light for me in terms of immigration reform ... is to bring families together, not divide them up."
Added Clinton, "The first speech I gave in this campaign back in April was about criminal justice reform and ending the era of mass incarceration."
STICKING WITH OBAMA
Throughout the debate, Clinton sought to align herself with President Barack Obama, from his signature health care law to his record on race relations. On the latter subject, she said, "I think what President Obama did is to exemplify the importance of this issue as the first African-American president."
When Sanders challenged Clinton on her acceptance of campaign contributions from Wall Street, Clinton used Obama as a shield, noting that he had received a large amount of campaign cash from the financial sector but still pushed for the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul bill, passed in 2010.
"When it mattered, he stood up and took on Wall Street," Clinton said of Obama, adding, "So, let's not in any way imply here that either President Obama or myself would in any way not take on any vested interest, whether it's Wall Street, or drug companies, or insurance companies, or frankly, the gun lobby to stand up to do what's best for the American people."
Obama remains popular with rank-and-file Democrats, including African-American voters in South Carolina. Later in the debate, Clinton struck out at Sanders for saying in a recent interview that Obama had failed the "presidential leadership test."
"I understand what President Obama inherited," Clinton said. "I don't think he gets the credit he deserves."
Sanders called it a "low blow," and began his closing statement with this rebuttal: "One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate."
ARGUING OVER HEALTH CARE
Clinton took an aggressive stance on health care from the outset, arguing that Sanders' plan to create a universal health care system by expanding Medicare would undermine Obama's Affordable Care Act. She argued repeatedly that Sanders had failed to provide a specific way to pay for his plan, and turned the exchange into an overall critique of the Vermont senator's proposals.
"In my case, whether it's health care, or getting us to debt-free tuition, or moving us toward paid family leave, I have been very specific about where I would raise the money, how much it would cost, and how I would move this agenda forward," Clinton said.
Sanders countered that Clinton was not being accurate, casting the fight for universal health care as a matter of courage. He said he was the candidate willing to take on drug companies, the insurance industry and medical equipment suppliers who might be opposed to an overhaul.
When Clinton tried to distinguish herself by saying she'll have the political capital to pass her plans "once I'm in the White House," Sanders shot back, "Secretary Clinton, you're not in the White House yet."
REACHING OUT TO BLACK VOTERS
Black voters will be critical in South Carolina and in several Southern state that follow, including Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas. Both candidates made specific appeals to African-American voters who could play a pivotal role in determining the outcome of the race.
Sanders called the large number of black males in prison "one of the great tragedies in our country today."
"And we can no longer continue to sweep it under the rug," Sanders said. "It has to be dealt with. ... A male African-American baby born today stands a one-in-four chance of ending up in jail. That is beyond unspeakable."
Clinton tried to expand the issue beyond criminal justice, saying there was "systemic racism" in education and employment. "So, when we talk about criminal justice reform, and ending the era of mass incarceration, we also have to talk about jobs, education, housing and other ways of helping communities," she said.
When asked by the debate's moderators, Clinton also pointed to the needs of beleaguered white workers, including those living in coal country. "I'm going to do everything I can to address distressed communities, whether they are communities of color, whether they are white communities, whether they are in any part of our country," she said.
A KISSINGER FLASH BACK
In the debate's second half, Sanders tried to impugn Clinton's judgment on foreign policy by pointing out that she had boasted of winning the praise of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who served during the administration of President Richard Nixon.
Sanders called Kissinger "one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the history of this country" and blasted the 92-year-old Kissinger's role in U.S. policy toward Cambodia decades ago.
When Clinton tried to turn the tables, pointing out that Sanders hasn't provided details on where he is getting foreign policy advice, Sanders quipped, "Well, it ain't Henry Kissinger."
Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/kthomasdc