ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign enlisted the support of black Democrats on Friday to undermine Bernie Sanders' push to claim a piece of President Barack Obama's legacy, arguing she is the rightful heir to the nation's first black president.
Clinton sought solidarity with Obama at every turn during Thursday's debate in Milwaukee, referring to herself as a "staunch supporter" of his health care law and praising him as a role model on race relations. Clinton ended the debate by criticizing Sanders for saying in an interview with MSNBC that Obama had failed the "presidential leadership test."
By Friday, as Clinton traveled between South Carolina and Minnesota, her African-American allies in Congress seized upon comments the Vermont senator made at the debate insinuating that race relations would "absolutely" be better under a future Sanders administration.
One questioned the allegiances of Sanders, who is the longest serving independent in congressional history but running for president as a Democrat.
"He was never a Democrat. He is only a Democrat for convenience," Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said in an interview with The Associated Press. He accused Sanders of "dismissive and disrespectful behavior toward the president."
Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus's political action committee, said in a statement that Sanders wanted to "undo President Obama's accomplishments" and also pointed to the MSNBC interview, saying Sanders' "disparaging comments towards the president are misplaced, misguided and do not give credit where credit is due."
Sanders' campaign said the accusations showed a Clinton campaign still reeling from a sweeping loss earlier this week in New Hampshire and tightening races in Nevada and South Carolina. Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said Clinton's campaign was "getting very nervous and is becoming increasingly negative and desperate. The simple truth is that there are very few in Congress who have a stronger civil rights record than Senator Sanders."
Sanders, addressing about 4,000 activists at the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's annual Humphrey-Mondale Dinner in St. Paul, the nation should be "proud of the accomplishments of the Obama and Biden administration."
"But we have got to be honest and to acknowledge we still have a very, very long way to go to create the nation I know all of us believe we can create," he said.
The exchange underscored the degree to which Obama's legacy has become tug-of-war between Clinton and Sanders as the Democratic race winds into Nevada and South Carolina, where minority voters play a pivotal role.
The Democratic rivals will be competing for the support of black voters who factor in several Super Tuesday contests on March 1, including Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
Clinton invoked Obama or his administration 21 times during Thursday's debate and used the president, who remains popular with rank-and-file Democrats, as a shield to push back against Sanders' critiques.
Sanders portrayed himself as an Obama ally in the Senate and the successor to the Obama movement for change. He regularly notes his ability to generate enthusiasm among young people, one of Obama's main draws in 2008.
At one point during the debate, Sanders told Clinton sharply: "One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate."
His campaign dismissed Clinton's contention that Sanders had presented himself as potentially better than Obama on race relations.
"The Clinton campaign takes every single thing that comes out of his mouth, twists it and distorts it and throws it back," said top Sanders strategist Tad Devine after the debate.
Both candidates sought to appeal to black voters Friday. Clinton campaigned in Denmark, South Carolina, where she outlined a $125 billion economic revitalization proposal aimed at creating jobs, improving infrastructure and building housing in "communities of poverty and systemic racism."
Sanders, appearing earlier in Minneapolis at a forum on race and economic opportunity, was confronted by attendees who demanded specifics about his views on reparations to African-American descendants of slavery.
"I know you're scared to say black, I know you're scared to say reparations," one woman said. Sanders said the problem wasn't confined to race but investments in poor communities were "long overdue."
One man yelled: "Say black!" Sanders responded: "I've said black 50 times. That's the 51st."
Ta-Nehisi Coates, an influential writer on racial issues, drew attention to the issue recently in an Atlantic Magazine essay entitled "The Case for Reparations." Coates has said he will vote for Sanders.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., one of Sanders' top black surrogates, suggested the senator was the right successor to Obama, asking the audience if they had voted for Obama eight years ago "because what he told you was not possible? Or did you vote for him because he said, 'Yes we can' and projected a bold vision?"
"That's what's happening right now. This is the right campaign if you believe this country can be better than it was," Ellison said. "It's not saying that Obama's not a great president. I support President Obama, but I'm telling you this: We can do better."
Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey in Minneapolis and Seanna Adcox in Denmark, South Carolina, contributed to this report.
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