Flint / AFP
With the Democratic presidential nomination in sight, Hillary Clinton sought to repel sharp attacks from party rival Bernie Sanders, while training some fire on Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
â€œDonald Trumpâ€™s bigotry, his bullying, his bluster are not going to wear well on the American people,â€ Clinton said in a sometimes testy debate with Sanders sponsored by CNN in Flint, Michigan.
â€œI will do whatever I can as the Democratic nominee to run a campaign youâ€™ll be proud of,â€ she said. â€œI donâ€™t intend to get in to the gutter with whoever they nominate.â€
Nine months after launching her presidential campaign, Clinton appears close to securing her partyâ€™s nomination, despite a spirited and stronger-than-expected challenge from Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist.
Sanders has won a string of state-wide nominating primaries over the weekend, including in Nebraska and Kansas on Saturday, and won Sundayâ€™s party vote in Maine.
But thanks to Clintonâ€™s victories and strong second place showings, she maintains a two-to-one lead in the number of nominating delegates.
After three months of voting, a general election between Democrat Clinton and Republican Trump seems increasingly likely.
â€œAs of last night Donald Trump had received 3.6 million votes, which is a good number,â€ Clinton said, remarking on the mogulâ€™s shock electoral success.
But, she added: â€œThere is only one candidate in either party who has more votes than him, and thatâ€™s me.â€
Gov. Snyder â€˜should resignâ€™
In a chaotic election year that has seen outsiders tap voter unease, Clinton will not be taking anything for granted, not least Sanders.
Ideological differences between the two candidates were thrown into sharp contrast in the debate, held in a town where lead-tainted water has poisoned thousands of children.
Clinton and Sanders both criticized Michiganâ€™s Republican governor Rick Snyder, who they said should resign or be recalled from his post for neglecting Flint.
More than 8,000 children in Flint, economically devastated by the closure of General Motors factories, were exposed to lead for more than a year before the tap water contamination was uncovered by citizen activists.
â€œThe governor should resign or be recalled and we should support the efforts of citizens attempting to achieve that,â€ Clinton said, adding that federal funds should be released to help Flint residents.
Sanders said he had been â€œshatteredâ€ by visiting the city and meeting citizens.
â€œIt was beyond belief that children in Flint, Michigan, in the United States of America in the year 2016, are being poisoned. That is clearly not what this country should be about.â€
Sanders said that Snyder â€œshould understand that his dereliction of duty was irresponsible. He should resign.â€
Snyder, writing on Twitter, blamed the crisis on â€œa failure of government and all levels that could be described as a massive error of bureaucracy.â€
He also noted that the candidates will soon leave Michigan. â€œThey will not be staying to solve the crisis,â€ he said, adding that he was â€œcommitted to the people of Flint.â€
Cause of Michiganâ€™s woes?
There was less agreement, however, on the causes of Michiganâ€™s economic woes, a key issue as the state goes to vote on Tuesday.
Seeking to draw contrast, Vermont senator Sanders hit the former secretary of state hard for her pro-trade policies and accused her of taking cash from Wall Street, as well as the fossil fuel and pharmaceutical industries.
â€œSecretary Clinton supported virtually every one of the disastrous trade agreements written by corporate America,â€ Sanders said to cheers.
Clinton shot back, accusing Sanders of voting against the bailout of the auto industry, which is a major employer in Michigan. That prompted a feisty exchange.
â€œI voted to save the auto industry. He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry. I think that is a pretty big difference,â€ Clinton said.
Sanders suggested that Clinton was talking about a â€œWall Street bailout where some of your friends destroyed this economy.â€
â€œExcuse me, Iâ€™m talking,â€ Sanders said sharply as Clinton tried to interject. â€œIf you are going to talk, tell the whole story, Senator Sanders,â€ she said.
The tone eventually grew more civil, allowing both Democrats to compare their debate to a Republican debate last week that descended into allusion about phallic figure.