Democratic debate in Flint: Clinton, Sanders fight to move needle

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders love the 90s
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Story highlights

  • Issac Bailey: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, sparring over nuances of voting records on auto bailout, guns and race, tried to peel away each others' voters
  • He says little in the substantive debate -- a far cry from the raucous GOP exchange -- was likely to change minds for upcoming primaries

Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Twitter: @ijbailey The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)All you need to know about the potential impact of Sunday night's CNN Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, is that I was blocked on Twitter by an apparent Bernie Sanders supporter named Shelly about midway through the two-hour event.

She had tweeted that Sanders supported the federal government's 2009 auto bailout that economists credit for saving millions of jobs. I pointed out that he had voted to defeat a Republican filibuster -- a fact his campaign happily tweeted out -- but voted against the bailout.
    Issac Bailey
    After a short back-and-forth, she conceded by saying "You know bills get random things attached, rarely simple. So he could support, but vote against bc of GOP add-ons."
    That's true of just about every bill, I returned, even including their differences on Iraq.
    Hillary Clinton has received consistent grief from Democrats for her vote to authorize what became an almost decade long war in Iraq. What's less well known, I told Shelly, is that Sanders also voted for regime change in Iraq, in 1998. The difference is that President George W. Bush used Clinton's vote to go to war while President Bill Clinton did not invade Iraq after the authorization he received from Sanders.
    Clinton and Sanders battle over auto industry bailout
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    Clinton and Sanders battle over auto industry bailout 01:32
    I wanted to also say the same thing happened on the 1994 crime bill, the auto bailout and other high-profile votes, most of which force politicians to decide if the good in the bill before them outweighs the bad, which is why purity tests proffered by voters and interest groups are often misleading and counterproductive.
    But Shelly ended the discussion before we could delve deeper.
    "And with that, I'm done," Shelly tweeted seconds before blocking me. "I don't debate #Hillary apologists who make excuses for her #Iraq vote and support."
    Until that point, I believed we were having a dialogue of substance, presenting facts and necessary context, sort of like what we were watching Sanders and Clinton do on CNN, given that there were no declarations about genital and hand size.
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    I mistakenly believed the thoughts Shelly and I were exchanging would matter. Her reaction, though, encapsulated where things are in the Democratic primary. Essentially, nothing much has changed since the outset of the race -- Clinton remains a strong favorite even as Sanders has become a top-tier challenger -- and the debates, as substantive as they've been, have done little to change that.
    Sanders and Clinton didn't have a heated exchange until 20 minutes into the night, with Sanders trying to focus attention on Clinton's Wall Street speeches and Clinton hitting Sanders for his vote against the auto bailout. Even Sanders' dismissive, "Excuse me, I'm talking," outburst was a short-lived distraction before the back-and-forth regained its footing on trade deals, how to solve the problem of lead in water systems, institutional racism and the differences in the candidates' gun voting records.
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    The two kept things mostly above board, less superficially entertaining than what we witnessed during the most recent Republican debate in Detroit.
    But because there were no "Oops, I forgot" level gaffes, there's little reason to believe the polls will change much before the voters of Michigan head to the polls Tuesday.
    At this point, supporters of each candidate want confirmation that they are backing the right person, not to hear that the other side isn't the caricature they've seen portrayed.
    That's fine for this stage of the race, and pretty typical in presidential politics. The only question is how long will it take the supporters of the losing candidate to get on board with the eventual nominee -- the kind of problem Republicans wished they had.