Clinton, Sanders knock GOP on eve of Democratic debate

Jonathan Oosting Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Detroit – Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton on Saturday prepared for her upcoming debate with Bernie Sanders by mocking Republicans for their raucous contest earlier this week.

Clinton, speaking to a friendly crowd at a reception organized by the Michigan Democratic Party, compared the GOP candidates to school children that don’t “play well with others.”

“You really just want to pull your hair out when you see that ‘insult-fest’ that goes on among the Republicans,” she said. “But I want us also to remember, we see the consequences of Republican control in Lansing too. And we can’t afford to let them take the White House and keep the Congress.”

Clinton and Sanders both addressed Democratic party faithful who gathered for a pre-debate reception at the MGM Grand in Detroit. They’ll square off Sunday evening in Flint ahead of Tuesday’s Michigan primary.

The former Secretary of State rarely mentioned Sanders in her 22-minute speech, instead focusing on her own policy proposals while criticizing state and local Republicans.

Sanders, the Independent U.S. Senator from Vermont who is running second in recent Michigan polls, highlighted policy differences with Clinton, particularly his own consistent opposition to trade deals he said has led to the loss of “many, many jobs” in the state.

But he too saved his harshest critiques for Republicans, including businessman Donald Trump.

“I do not believe that the American people will ever elect a president of the United States who insults Mexicans, who insults Muslims, who insults women, who insults veterans,” Sanders said in a brisk 12-minute speech. “I believe the American people understand that the future of our nation is bringing people together, not dividing them.”

Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio of Ohio, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich debated Thursday night at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Rubio and Cruz, in particular, repeatedly sparred with Trump in a forum devoid of deep policy discussion.

Other Democrats joined Clinton and Sanders in mocking the raucous Republican debate. U.S. Sen. Gary Peters called it “sophomoric,” while state House Minority Leader Tim Greimel called it a “clown show.”

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who received a standing ovation at the reception, noted that the water crisis in her city was the subject of just one question at Thursday’s GOP debate, and only one candidate was asked to respond.

Rubio called the Flint water crisis “a terrible thing” and a “systematic breakdown at every level of government.” He also suggested Democrats were “politicizing” the issue, a characterization that Weaver disputed.

“How do you politicize a crisis? This is a crisis. We can’t drink our water,” said Weaver. “…We’re not politicizing. We’re paying attention.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township contrasted the Republican debate with the Democratic National Committee’s decision to host Sunday’s debate in Flint itself.

“Our candidates, our policies, our philosophies recognize that the most essential function of government is to make sure everyone has a fair shot, and that includes those kids in Flint,” said Kildee.

Clinton: Lots of Flints out there

The Flint water crisis has emerged as a central issue in the Democratic campaign, and Clinton said Saturday that there are “lots of Flints” across the country where “the poor and people of color have been left behind.”

One need look no further than Detroit, she said, noting reports of school buildings that are “infested with rodents and mold.” Mayor Mike Duggan saw a dead mouse last month during a schools tour, and unions have published photos of mold in some buildings.

“It is time for Gov. Snyder to give Detroit schools back to the people of Detroit,” Clinton said, referencing the fact the district has been controlled by a state-appointed emergency manager for several years.

Even as she noted problems in Detroit Public Schools, Clinton praised Detroit as a comeback city, saying she wanted the national media who were following her to hear that story.

"If I am your Democratic nominee, I will make Detroit a central issue in this campaign. I will make Flint a central issue in this campaign. I will make Michigan’s comeback and story of resilience and success (an issue) in this campaign," she said.

Democrats and Republicans have often debated the catalyst for Michigan’s economic rebound since the great recession. Democrats have attributed it to President Barack Obama’s support for the auto industry, while Republicans note they’ve controlled all levels of state government since 2011.

“Hearing #HillaryClinton in #Detroit list off good economic news in MI, I thought she was readying to credit #MIGOP,” state Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, joked on Twitter. “#comebackstate”

Clinton met with a group of Detroit pastors Saturday morning, and her husband and daughter are both campaigning in Michigan this weekend on her behalf.

Former President Bill Clinton spoke at a Detroit union hall Saturday and made other stops around the city, including an afternoon visit to the Shinola watch company. Chelsea Clinton is scheduled to campaign for her mother Sunday in Detroit Southfield and Flint.

Sanders celebrates caucus wins

While Clinton remains the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Sanders had reason to celebrate Saturday night after winning caucuses in Kansas and Nebraska. Clinton won the Louisiana primary, however, and ended up winning more delegates on the day.

“We think we’re going to do very well here on Tuesday in your great state, but no matter who wins, on our worst day we will be infinitely better than the Republicans on their best day,” Sanders said Saturday night.

Clinton has maintained a solid lead in recent Michigan polls, but Sanders is making an aggressive push in the state, where he has focused on trade policy, including his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement signed into law by Clinton’s husband.

He raised the issue earlier Saturday during a rally at Macomb Community College and again at the Democratic party reception.

“We will transform our trade policy,” Sanders said. “Our demand is corporate America invests in America.”

He also reiterated his call for a single-payer “Medicare for all” health care system, which he proposed paying for with an income-based premiums he has said would still save most families money.

“There is one country in the industrialized world that does not guarantee health care to all people,” he said. “You’re living in it. It’s got to change.”

The CNN Democratic presidential debate in Flint is scheduled for Sunday at 8 p.m.