MILWAUKEE — White House hopeful Bernie Sanders argued to Democratic activists here Saturday night that he would be the party’s strongest candidate in the fall election, claiming he would bring a greater “vibrancy” to the race against Republican Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton.
Speaking to a crowd of hundreds attending a Democratic Founder’s Day dinner, Sanders argued that his polling numbers against Trump are better than Clinton and that he has “revolutionized” the way money is raised by avoiding special interests he claims have bankrolled his rival.
“There is one campaign that has created an enormous amount of excitement and enthusiasm, and that is our campaign,” Sanders said. “For the Democratic party to succeed, we need a vibrancy, and we need an energy, and we need a level of grass-roots activism that we do not have at this moment.”
Clinton responded that she is the candidate who can actually get something done, as the two Democrats vie for what has become a highly contested primary victory in Wisconsin on Tuesday. Sanders leads Clinton, who remains the front-runner nationally but can ill afford another in a string of embarrassing losses to the underdog senator from Vermont.
“I think we need a nominee who’s been tested and vetted,” Clinton told a crowd of Wisconsin Democrats, adding that Republicans have tried to get the better of her for 25 years, “but I’m still standing.”
Her appearance at the fund-raising dinner was added abruptly this week, a signal that her campaign recognizes the symbolic effect that a large Sanders victory would have. Clinton appears to be trying to at least limit the scope of a Sanders victory while showing that she fought for the state, among the last large industrial or agricultural Midwestern states on the presidential primary calendar.
Wisconsin is the last Democratic contest before New York on April 19, which has become the major showdown that Clinton supporters hope will finally eliminate Sanders as a viable competitor. His persistent challenge has taxed Clinton’s far larger operation and revealed weaknesses, including slow decision-making and poor support among young voters.
Clinton focused on Wisconsin issues, including several broadsides against Republican Gov. Scott Walker, whom she called a shortsighted “bully.” Clinton drew applause when she blasted a state judge named by Walker, Rebecca Bradley, who has likened contraception to murder.
“Tonight, I’m adding my voice to the chorus of voices across Wisconsin saying no to the assault on women’s reproductive rights, no to hate speech and no to Bradley,” Clinton said.
Both Democrats criticized Trump and, to a lesser extent, one another. Both Clinton and Sanders pointed to rhetoric on the Republican side of the race that they suggested is shameful or irrelevant to the real problems facing the country, and each blamed Republican front-runner Trump.
Clinton made an unusually direct assault on Sanders’s trade record, which she said is consistent but misguided.
“He’s opposed all trade deals, all the time,” Clinton said. “But I don’t think that’s right,” because when “done right” trade arrangements can benefit American workers, she said.
“We need a president who doesn’t just rail against trade, or enforce trade, but a president who knows how to compete,” she said.
For Sanders, the Wisconsin vote on Tuesday is a must-win contest in his improbable quest to catch Clinton in the delegate fight for the party’s nomination.
During his 20-minute address, Sanders made few overt references to Clinton, who spoke after him, but suggested a clear contrast when speaking about their fundraising practices.
Sanders has raised the vast majority of his donations online, reaping what he said was a total of more than 6 million contributions averaging $ 27 apiece.
“I don’t have a super PAC. I don’t get money from Wall Street or anybody else, and I’m proud of that,” he said.
“I am enormously proud … that we have revolutionized campaign financing in the United States of America,” Sanders said. “I believe that is the future of the Democratic party. I believe that we’ve got to tell Wall Street, and the drug companies and the fossil fuel industry and all of the big money interests, ‘Sorry, we are not on your side, we do not want your money.’”