Bernie Sanders was linked to an unlikely array of Republicans by Hillary Clinton on Wednesday, as the latest Democratic debate saw both candidates digging deep into each other’s records to find fresh angles of attack in an increasingly sterile format.
With immigration policy dominating the ninth such clash between the two candidates, held in Miami, the former secretary of state claimed that by opposing a 2007 immigration bill, Sanders had aligned himself with far-right groups.
“Sanders stood with Minuteman vigilantes in their ridiculous efforts to hunt down immigrants,” claimed Clinton.
Sanders rejected the accusation, shaking his head vigorously and arguing that his opposition was based on a concern about exploiting immigrants with a guest worker programme that was also opposed by Latino groups at the time.
But Clinton persisted in a similar line of attack over the Vermont senator’s opposition to the export-import bank, a government loan guarantee system for US exporters that he has dubbed “the bank of Boeing”.
Funding for the bank is also opposed by some libertarian-minded Republicans and Clinton criticised Sanders because the billionaire Koch brothers had run an advert thanking him for his stance.
Similarly, the self-declared “democratic socialist” was accused of favouring Republican presidents over Democratic ones because he had questioned presidents Obama and Clinton.
“Senator Sanders is always criticising the last two Democratic presidents. But I wish he would join me in criticising President Bush,” said Clinton.
“I gather Secretary Clinton hasn’t listen to too many of my speeches because very few of my colleagues stood up as much to President George W Bush,” responded a surprised-looking Sanders.
The pattern of finding ways to question her opponent’s progressive credentials is a departure for Clinton, who is mainly on the receiving end of attacks on her Wall Street ties, but it follows a similar gambit at the debate on Sunday in which she accused Sanders of seeking to prevent government assistance to the automobile industry.
Sanders has argued the tactics amount to an attempt to smear his record and confuse voters over what he claims was a vote against the Wall Street bailout.
But the war of words shows both candidates struggling to find fresh avenues of attack against each other and resorting to inconsistencies within two political track records stretching back over nearly a century combined.
Sanders similarly criticised Clinton’s approach to deporting child immigrants from Honduras, something she argues was based on concerns about child welfare and a need to stay within existing laws.
The debate over immigration saw the most substantive and new exchanges between the two, although their underlying policies on the subject appear to differ little.
Clinton pledged to make a path to citizenship “a priority for my first 100 days” in office. Pressed on perceived flip-flopping, or “Hispandering” as moderator Maria Elena Salinas put it, Clinton pointed to her “consistent and committed approach to comprehensive immigration reform”, having sponsored the 2003 Dreamer Act and supported Senator Ted Kennedy’s 2007 immigration bill.
“I voted for that bill and Senator Sanders voted against,” she said. “Imagine how much more secure families would be in our country no longer fearing deportation, no longer fearing they’d be found out.”
Sanders responded by accusing Clinton of demanding the then New York governor Elliot Spitzer deny driving licences to undocumented immigrants.
He cited his own credentials in support of immigrants, specifically a barely publicised visit to farm workers in Immokalee, Florida, whom he said lived in conditions “akin to slavery”.
“We not only need comprehensive immigration reform but if Congress won’t do its job I will use executive powers to do what needs to be done,” he said.
Both candidates promised that they would not deport children nor undocumented immigrants with no criminal record.
Sanders said he would never resort to the “racism, xenophobia or bigotry” of mass deportations. “Rounding up 11 million people … is a vulgar, absurd idea that I hope very few people in this country would ever support.”
Clinton went on to blast Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s plans for a giant wall across the US southern border when the conversation turned to Mexico.
“He’s talking about a very tall wall, a beautiful tall wall, the most beautiful tall wall, better than the Great Wall of China that he would somehow get the Mexican government to pay for,” she said, mocking Trump’s style of delivery. “It’s just fantasy.”
Clinton adopted a defiant tone when questions moved to Benghazi, and whether as secretary of state she had lied about the deadly 2012 attack on the US embassy in Libya.
“I feel a great deal of sympathy for families of four brave Americans we lost at Benghazi and I certainly can’t imagine the grief she has from losing her son,” she said after a clip played of a victim’s mother insisting she was denied the truth. “But she’s wrong, she’s absolutely wrong.”
“I testified for 11 hours. Anyone who watched that or listened to it knows I answered any questions that were asked.”
She went on to question why other terrorist actions that cost American lives, such as September 11 and an attack on the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, did not receive similar scrutiny.
“At no other times of those tragedies were they politicised. Instead, people said ‘let’s learn lessons’.”
A question with resonance in Miami, home to a large population of Cuban American exiles, came when the candidates were quizzed on whether they would meet with former Cuban president Fidel Castro, or if they thought his brother Raúl Castro, the current president, was a dictator. Barack Obama is set to make a historic visit to Cuba later this month.
Sanders did not appear to be embarrassed when a clip from a 1985 interview was shown in which he said people forgot Fidel gave the country healthcare and transformed its economy.
“Cuba is an authoritarian, undemocratic country. I hope it soon becomes democratic, but it would be wrong not to state in Cuba they’ve made good advances in healthcare and are sending doctors all over the world,” he said.
Clinton did not round on Sanders’ position, expressing her desire to expand Obama’s pulling down of barriers with Cuba after a half-decade of hostility.
But the two did spar after moderators bowed to a request made on Tuesday by a coalition of concerned Florida mayors to ask more questions in the debates about climate change and rising sea levels.
The issue is of particular concern to Miami-Dade county, where more residents live less than four feet above sea level than anywhere else in the US but Louisiana.
“A clean power plan is something Senator Sanders says he would delay implementing,” Clinton said.
“You can see already what’s happening in Miami with tides rising. Most of the property in Florida will be at risk in the next 50 years.”
It put Sanders on the defensive. “You’re looking at the senator who introduced the most comprehensive climate change legislation in the history of the US,” he said, bating Clinton to join him “in ending fracking in the US”.
“The fossil fuel industry is destroying the planet,” he added. “When you have Republican candidates telling you that climate change is a hoax what they are really saying is we don’t have the guts to take on the fossil fuel industry.”
Other issues raised during the two-hour debate at Miami-Dade College, in the same hall where Jeb Bush launched his ill-fated presidential campaign last year, were familiar and often mundane, such as their positions on healthcare, education and Clinton using a private server for official emails.
“I’m not concerned about it, I’m not worried by it and no American should be either,” she said about the emails. Would she drop out of the race if she was found to have done wrong? “Oh for goodness [sake],” she snapped. “That is not going to happen. I’m not even answering that question.”