By John Whitesides
FLINT, Mich. (Reuters) - Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton sparred in a debate on Sunday over who had the best chance to beat Republican front-runner Donald Trump, and mocked the level of discourse in the Republican White House race.
Near the end of a Michigan debate that featured sharp clashes over trade and the auto industry bailout, as well as a lengthy discussion of religion, Clinton and Sanders both said they could not wait to face the brash billionaire in the Nov. 8 election to succeed Democratic President Barack Obama.
"I think Donald Trump's bigotry, his bullying, his bluster, are not going to wear well on the American people," Clinton said. "We have to end the divisiveness, we have to unify the country."
Sanders said he would "love" to run against Trump and noted many opinion polls showed him faring better against him than Clinton did. He and Clinton urged voters to compare the substance of their debate with the Republican versions, which last week featured name-calling and Trump defending his penis size.
"We are, if elected president, going to invest a lot of money in mental health," Sanders said, then cracked a joke. "And when you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest in mental health."
Trump frequently says he will beat either Clinton or Sanders. "I am the one person that she does not want to run against," he said of Clinton on Saturday.
The debate in Flint, which is suffering a water contamination and public health crisis, came as Sanders has struggled to slow Clinton's march to the presidential nomination. Sanders picked up some good news on Sunday with a projected win in Maine's caucus.
Clinton, 68, a former secretary of state and first lady, has spoken on the campaign trail of the need for more love and kindness, a contrast to Trump's rhetoric about his plans to deport illegal immigrants and temporarily bar Muslims from entering the country.
"I don't intend to get into the gutter with whoever they nominate, but instead to lift our sights," Clinton said in the debate.
Describing herself as a "praying person," she said it was hard to imagine living under the pressure of the White House "without being able to fall back on prayer and on my faith."
Sanders, asked if he was deliberately keeping his Jewish faith in the background on the campaign trail, said his father's family was wiped out in the Holocaust. He described going shopping with his mother as a boy in Brooklyn, New York, and seeing people with numbers on their arms from Nazi concentration camps.
"I am very proud of being Jewish, and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being," Sanders said.
'DISASTROUS' TRADE POLICIES
Earlier, the two candidates exchanged angry jabs over trade, with Sanders accusing Clinton of backing "disastrous" trade policies that moved manufacturing jobs out of cities like Flint and Detroit and shifted them overseas.
But Clinton said Sanders' opposition to the 2009 auto bailout, a crucial issue in a state that is home to the U.S. auto industry, would have cost millions of jobs. The bailout, which Clinton supported, passed Congress and has been credited with helping save the U.S. industry.
Sanders, 74 a U.S. senator from Vermont and democratic socialist, also questioned the sincerity of Clinton's conversion to opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-nation Pacific Rim trade deal.
The two contenders cut each other off on several occasions, a rare occurrence in a race that has been much more polite than the raucous Republican presidential campaign.
"Excuse me, I'm talking," Sanders said to Clinton when she tried to interrupt. "If you're going to talk, tell the whole story," Clinton responded.
Sanders pressed his charge that Clinton was too close to Wall Street and demanded again that she release the transcript of paid speeches she has given to Wall Street firms. Clinton said she would release them when all the candidates, including Republicans, also release transcripts of similar talks.
'THERE AIN'T NOTHING!'
Throwing up his hands, Sanders said: "I'll release it. Here it is. There ain't nothing! I don’t give speeches to Wall Street!"
The debate was held in Flint to highlight the city's water contamination crisis, and both candidates expressed outrage at Flint's plight and demanded Republican Governor Rick Snyder's resignation.
The crisis in Flint, a predominantly black city of 100,000, was triggered when an emergency city manager installed by Snyder switched the city's water supply to the nearby Flint River from Lake Michigan to save money.
The change corroded Flint's aging pipes and released lead and other toxins into the water supply, exposing thousands of residents including children to high lead levels that have sparked serious health problems.
(Additional reporting by Alana Wise, Luciana Lopez and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Caren Bohan and Peter Cooney)