The forum quickly turned into a heated philosophical argument about an economy that Sanders said is weighted against the middle and working classes and is abetted, he said, by close ties between politicians, such as Clinton, and Wall Street financiers.
Sanders accused Clinton of supporting "disastrous" trade policies that contributed to corporate America's decision to move manufacturing from cities like Flint to low-wage economies in Central America and Asia. But she in turn said that Sanders had refused to vote for a bailout for the auto industry that was included in the outgoing Bush administration's attempts to stave off the financial crisis.
"If everybody had voted the way he did, I believe the auto industry would have collapsed, taking 4 million jobs with it," Clinton said.
Clinton also pressed Sanders on guns and accused him of being too close to the National Rifle Association.
"You talk about corporate greed. The gun manufacturers sell guns to make as much money as they can make," Clinton said.
Sanders replied by responding that Clinton's arguments, effectively, would amount to a ban on the manufacture of guns.
At one point, both candidates talked over one another in their determination to make their points about the economy.
"Excuse me, I am talking," Sanders said.
Sanders repeatedly knocked Clinton for her ties to the finance industry and demanded that she release transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street firms. Clinton said she will do so when other candidates, including Republicans, agree to do the same.
While the exchanges were intense and revealed clear schisms between Clinton and Sanders, they were largely confined to policy differences, and lacked the personal -- and even vulgar -- tone that characterized the last two Republican debates.
Both candidates billed themselves as the best possible person to take on the Republicans, particularly Donald Trump
, in a general election. Clinton slammed what she said was the "bigotry, bullying and bluster" of the GOP front-runner, while her rival pointed to polls indicating he was more likely to beat the billionaire.
Clinton and Sanders opened the debate agreeing on one point: that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder should step down over his response to the toxic water crisis in Flint.
Sanders accused Synder of "dereliction of duty" while Clinton said the governor should "resign or be recalled" -- a comment that represented a new position for the former secretary of state.
Snyder tweeted in his own defense during the debate.
"I'm taking responsibility as our value system says we should. My track record is getting things done, and I want to get this done," he wrote on Twitter.
Both candidates expressed alarm over the water crisis that erupted in Flint when government officials switched the city's water source temporarily in April 2014 from the Great Lakes to the Flint River to cut costs. Pollution from the highly corrosive river water then ate into the city's water system, causing lead to leach into the water supply.
"It's raining lead in Flint," Clinton said.
Sanders recalled his visit to the city last month and said, "What I heard and what I saw literally shattered me."
Race and America
The candidates offered candid assessments of race in America. Clinton, when asked what racial blind spots she had, admitted that it was impossible for her to share the experience of many African-Americans, but she said she tried to understand the issues the community faces.
"I think (by) being a white person in the United States of America, I know that I have never had the experience that so many people, the people in this audience have had," she said. "And I think it's incumbent upon me, and what I have been trying to talk about during this campaign, is to urge white people to think about what it is like to have 'the talk' with your kids, scared that your sons or daughters, even, could get in trouble for no good reason whatsoever."
Sanders hit an awkward note as he sought to empathize with discrimination facing African-Americans, a demographic he has struggled to win in several primary contests.
"When you're white, you don't know what it's like to be living in a ghetto," Sanders said. "You don't know what it's like to be poor. You don't know what it's like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car."
Super Saturday victories
The debate in Flint came a day after Sanders pulled off morale-boosting Super Saturday
victories in Kansas and Nebraska
, doubling up on Clinton, who won the Louisiana primary on Saturday.
During the debate, CNN projected that Sanders would win the Maine Democratic caucuses. But Clinton's victory in Louisiana, which had the most delegates on offer this weekend, means that her lead in the presidential race of about 200 pledged delegates, remains essentially the same.
Michigan holds its primary on Tuesday.
The Democratic campaign is unfolding amid themes of race, economic opportunity and the problems afflicting blue-collar workers that are crystallized in the city of Flint in an age of globalization.
Residents say that even though the water supply has now been switched back to Lake Huron, the damage done to piping in their homes and in the water infrastructure remains severe and they are forced to drink bottled water. Michigan officials are investigating the extent to which lead poisoning has harmed the residents, including children, amid reports of severe rashes, developmental issues and other problems consistent with lead poisoning.
The debate offered members of the audience directly affected by some of the local issues a chance to question the candidates.
LeeAnne Walters, one of the first people to alert authorities about the Flint water crisis after her children developed health problems, asked the candidates to promise that if they were elected president, they would require the removal of all lead service lines from public water systems in the United States.
Gene Kopf, father of 14-year-old Abigail Kopf, who was shot and badly injured in a rampage in Kalamazoo, posed a question about gun control.
More than a water crisis
Flint's problems are not limited to its water crisis.
The city has long been a symbol of economic blight and the human implications of the decline of large-scale industrial manufacturing following the loss of its GM car manufacturing plant. More than 41% of Flint's residents live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census.
When asked about the flight of blue-collar jobs from cities such as Flint, Clinton said she would "stop this kind of jobs exporting."
But Sanders hit back: "I am very glad ... that Secretary Clinton has discovered religion on this issue."