Some Democrats are worried about potentially longer-term fallout of an increasingly personal conflict between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
NEW YORK — The contest between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders grew increasingly nasty with a series of testy exchanges that have prompted widespread concern among Democrats that their rivalry is doing lasting damage to the party and the eventual nominee.
With both candidates launching 10-day sprints in New York before the state’s April 19 primary, the strain and resentment of a hard-fought and unexpectedly long contest boiled over repeatedly. The senator from Vermont on Thursday refused to retract his assertion that Clinton is not qualified to be president. Clinton dismissed that claim as “silly” and countered that Sanders has repeatedly made promises he can’t keep.
In an interview Thursday, Sanders stood by his view that Clinton is not qualified, but he also pledged to support her if she is the nominee.
“Look, as I’ve said before, on her worst day, she is 100 times better than Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or the other candidates,” he said.
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Sanders continued to blame Clinton for going on the attack and said he has simply been defending himself. And while he expressed regret for the tenor of the campaign over the previous 24 hours and said the acrimony will make it harder for Democrats to unite in the fall, he also said he does not regret his statements.
“When somebody says that I am unqualified to be president and gives her reasoning,” Sanders said, “I think it is totally appropriate for me to respond as to why I think she may not be qualified as well.”
Clinton had raised questions in a television interview about whether Sanders was prepared to be president, but she repeatedly stopped short of saying he was unqualified.
Some Democrats are worried about potentially longer-term fallout of an increasingly personal conflict between Sanders and Clinton. “It concerns me deeply,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California. “What he does is divide the Democratic faithful, and why would he want to do that?”
Some Democrats said they found Sanders’ words particularly troubling because, outside the heat of the campaign trail, they don’t think he means them.
“I really don’t think he believes that,” said Sen. Timothy Kaine, D-Virginia, a Clinton supporter. “Nothing he’s ever said to us had conveyed that sentiment. Competition’s tough. I hope that they might back off it a little bit.”
President Obama, who has sought to stay out his party’s nominating contest, weighed in Thursday though a spokesman. Administration spokesman Eric Schultz said Obama believes Clinton “comes to the race with more experience than any non-vice president” in recent campaign history.
The testiness was not the only bump for Democrats.
Former President Clinton, who was campaigning for his wife at a rally in Philadelphia, was forced to defend his 1994 crime bill while weathering repeated heckling. He argued that the legislation had helped African Americans by protecting them from gangs, and he said that Black Lives Matter protesters were misguided.
Explaining that the bill caused big declines in homicides and other crime during his administration, Clinton said, “Whose lives were saved, that mattered?”
Although Hillary Clinton has been doing well among black voters during the nominating contests, she has had to distance herself from some of her husband’s policies, including the 1994 crime bill, which she implicitly suggested led to the mass incarceration of blacks. Last year, Bill Clinton acknowledged that the legislation had problems and that some of its provisions were too harsh.
The anger in the recreation center Thursday was evident, and at one point a protester shouted that the former president should be charged with crimes against humanity. The former president said the protesters were misguided.
“I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children,” Clinton said as the interruptions grew louder. “You are defending the people who kill the people whose lives you say matter. Tell the truth!”
As protesters continued to interrupt him, a frustrated Clinton said his wife, who was first lady at the time, was not responsible for his record. “She had nothing to do with it,” Clinton said, reprimanding those who tried to speak over him. “When somebody won’t hush and listen to you, that ain’t democracy. They’re afraid of the truth.”