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Story highlights

Clinton unloads new attacks on Sanders over his opposition to the auto bailout and the Export-Import bank

Sanders portrays Clinton as an opponent straight out of Wall Street central casting

Both call for the ouster of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican

Flint, Michigan CNN —  

It was no Republican debate – nobody talked about the size of their hands or made up demeaning nicknames – but Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were ready for action Sunday night.

Personal frustration peeked through as Clinton unloaded new attacks on Sanders over his opposition to the auto bailout and Sanders portrayed Clinton as a candidate straight out of Wall Street central casting.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speak during the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate.
Scott Olson/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speak during the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate.

Clinton, Sanders talk over each other in debate clash

Sunday was also ‘90s night, as the candidates essentially re-litigated major political battles of the era – including NAFTA, the assault weapons ban and crime bill – through modern eyes.

The debate came two days before Michigan’s primary – a key test of whether Sanders can expand his appeal to a broader and more diverse electorate – and was shaped by the concerns of voters in this city that is still struggling with a water crisis for which local, state and federal officials share the blame.

Here are five takeaways from Sunday’s debate:

Angry Sanders

Sanders waved, shouted, eye-rolled, baited and goaded his way through the debate.

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

Clinton laid into his opposition to the auto industry bailout. That measure was part of a broader rescue of the financial industry, a point Sanders was only too happy to make by saying: “If you are talking about the Wall Street bailout, where some of your friends destroyed the economy —”

Clinton interrupted: “You know…”

Sanders shot back: “Excuse me, I’m talking.”

And then Clinton said: “If you’re going to talk, tell the whole story.”

Sanders railed against the bailout, saying that he decided to “let the billionaires themselves bail out Wall Street – it shouldn’t be the middle class” – when Clinton tried to interject again.

“Could I finish? You’ll have your turn,” he said.

He showed his frustration with Clinton again later, saying: “Can I finish, please? All right?”

The exchange demonstrated a new level of comfort with the hand-to-hand combat of presidential campaigns. But it was also a risky move, making him sound potentially patronizing or dismissive of a candidate who could become the first female president.

This from a candidate who entered the race bragging about never running a negative ad. Sanders might keep their disputes focused on differences of policy – but at times Sunday night, it looked and sounded personal.

Clinton’s nuance vs. Sanders’ ‘no’

When Clinton was asked about fracking, she launched into a nuanced answer that gave credence to localities, state governments, and more. Her bottom line: There wouldn’t be many places where it would be OK under her.

Sanders had a much simpler answer. “No,” he said. He doesn’t support it. And he said he doesn’t care about all the Democratic governors who support it.

This, in a nutshell, is the difference between them. She has nuanced positions that look at the breadth of opinion across the country. She’s also keenly aware of the limitations of government, and strains to keep her positions within those limits – part of what she calls her “responsibility gene.”

Sanders has definitive positions that take a look at his ideology. That’s the Democrat’s choice: nuance or no nuance.

This same difference showed up when the two delved into the Flint water crisis at the debate’s outset.

Clinton’s big move on stage – her news-making comment at the debate’s outset – was one she’d resisted for months, arguing it was simplistic. But she went for it Sunday night, saying she agrees with Sanders in saying Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder needs to go. “I agree the governor should resign or be recalled,” she said.

But Sanders got bigger applause when he proposed putting an end to the city’s water bills, and refunding what residents there have paid in recent years.

“First thing you do is say, people are not paying a water bill for poison water. And that is retroactive,” he said.

Clinton: Sanders wanted to kill Detroit

Clinton saw Sanders’ punches over trade deals coming from miles away. That’s particularly true for the North American Free Trade Agreement, implemented under Bill Clinton.

So she readied an attack that Sanders didn’t seem prepared for, going at the Vermont senator for opposing the auto bailout.

“The money was there and had to be released in order to save the auto industry and 4 million jobs and to begin the restructuring,” Clinton said. “I 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.”

Then, she ticked off a list of states where she thinks that vote will hurt Sanders.

“Given the terrible pressures that the auto industry was under and that the middle class of this state and Ohio and Indiana and Illinois and Wisconsin and Missouri and other places in the Midwest were facing, I think it was the right decision to heed what President-elect Obama asked us to do,” she said. “You were either for saving the auto industry or against it. I voted to save the auto industry and I’m very glad that I did.”

The damage was done: When Clinton dropped the auto bailout bomb, the audience audibly ooooohed, highlighting the potency of that argument in the home of the U.S. auto industry.

Sanders’ blind spots

Sanders clearly learned lessons from earlier debates. He was careful not to suggest President Barack Obama hasn’t done enough – on anything – and instead said the country needs to build on Obama’s progress.

His criticism that Clinton is pandering to black voters by cozying up to Obama was gone entirely. Sanders was commanding in discussing the Flint water crisis, taking Clinton’s push for a debate in the city and turning it into his strong suit. He also took back ground on gun violence, saying of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, “You’re not the only person whose heart was broken.”

But he had his tone-deaf moments, sparking outrage on social media when he seemed to suggest that black people grow up poor and in ghettos and white people do not – a particular eye-raiser because he’d been asked ab