Sanders slams Bill Clinton: Ex-president enriched Wall Street and ‘ended up increasing extreme poverty’
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during the primary night rally in Concord, New Hampshire, on February 9, 2016 (AFP Photo/Jewel Samad)

Vermont senator accuses former president of allowing Wall Street to get too strong, days before critical Nevada caucuses

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination became increasingly pointed on Thursday as a spat between Bernie Sanders and Bill Clinton enveloped the campaign just before the critical Nevada caucuses.

Sanders criticized the former president en route to Las Vegas on his campaign plane and repeated his remarks during a televised town hall meeting. He accused Clinton of deregulating Wall Street, allowing the financial industry to become strong at the expense of the little guy.

Related: Donald Trump confronted with past support for Iraq war

He also said during the Telemundo/MSNBC town hall in Las Vegas, which was broadcast in English and Spanish, that “so-called welfare reform” pushed by the former president “ended up increasing extreme poverty in America for the poorest children in this country. I spoke out against that. I thought that was scapegoating some of the most vulnerable people in this country.”

Hillary Clinton fought back. Taking the stage after Sanders, she defended her husband while trying to persuade Nevadans that they should spend Saturday morning caucusing on her behalf.

When asked to respond to Sanders’ criticisms of her husband, first she described him as “the president who created 23 million jobs” and argued that “African American families and Latino families had an even higher than average increase in income”.

Then she went on the attack, to loud boos from the audience: “I know that Senator Sanders has also attacked President Obama, called him weak and disappointing ... I just don’t know where all this comes from. Maybe it’s that Senator Sanders wasn’t really a Democrat until he decided to run for president.”

The very public fight threatened to overshadow both Sanders’s and Clinton’s efforts to rally Nevada’s caucus-goers and address issues critical to this increasingly diverse state, which is still feeling the effects of the recession.

Nevada is the third state to host a nominating contest after Iowa and New Hampshire, where Clinton was pushed into an effective tie and then resoundingly beaten by Sanders respectively.

A defeat in Nevada would be catastrophic for Clinton, undermining the belief in her campaign that she would rebound from her early stumbles in places like the Silver State, in which close to half the population are Latino, African American or Asian.

In South Carolina, which hosts its Democratic primary later in the month, Clinton enjoys a comfortable, 20-point lead over Sanders, bolstered by overwhelming support from black voters .

Clinton is also leading in 10 of the 12 states that will hold Democratic primaries in early March, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released this week, but a strong showing by Sanders in Nevada could deflate that momentum.

The latest quarrel began on Monday when Clinton scrapped a scheduled rally in Florida so she could spend more time campaigning in advance of the Nevada caucuses. Her husband filled in for her, and, according to the Palm Beach Post, slammed his wife’s opponent for dragging the Democratic party to the left the same way Tea Party activists had made the Republican party more conservative.

“It’s not altogether mysterious that there are a lot of people that say, well, the Republican party rewarded the Tea Party,” the former president told supporters in Riviera Beach. “They just tell people what they want to hear, move them to the right and we’ll be rewarded – except they didn’t get anything done. Then, that’s going on now in our party.”

During the town hall, Sanders addressed the attack. “Bill Clinton has been on the campaign trail making some very nasty comments about me,” he said. Later on Thursday night, after Sanders’s talk at the town hall, he and Bill Clinton both spoke at a Democratic campaign dinner in Las Vegas, passing without meeting.

Clinton, who apologised to the audience for a voice “grown hoarse in the service of my candidate”, said: “I often think that I am useless to Hillary in this campaign because I’m not mad at anybody.”

Mad or not, he did not fail to criticize Sanders, though without naming him. Remarks by the former president seemed aimed at Sanders’s promise of European-style healthcare.

“When I was president we tried to pass healthcare reform and we didn’t have 60 votes in the Senate,” he said. “We had 56 Democrats. So don’t forget that when people promise to do things with healthcare, since world war two, nobody has passed anything meaningful in healthcare without 60 votes to break a Republican filibuster in the Senate.”

He wrapped up his speech by calling Sanders a “good guy” but with one more anecdote about how Hillary “always makes something good happen” while her opponent is making unrealizable demands.

In his campaign dinner speech, Sanders largely sidestepped the confrontation, and predicted that the polls that once gave Clinton a substantial lead in Nevada would not be reflected in the outcome of Saturday’s caucus.

Related: Sanders and Clinton embody their worst flaws. Which will voters prefer? | Lucia Graves

Instead, Sanders directed his most vitriolic fire at the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson , who gave about $150m to the Republican campaign to defeat Obama in 2012 .

A steady stream of Republican hopefuls tramped to Adelson’s office in Las Vegas last year in the hope of winning his financial backing – something that looks most likely to go to the Florida senator Marco Rubio.

“I had to tell the people of Iowa a while back that they thought they were holding the first caucus in the presidential election process,” said Sanders. “I had to tell them that wasn’t true. The first caucus was held many, many, many months ago here in Las Vegas.

“It was the Sheldon Adelson caucus,” Sanders said. “This is the corruption of American democracy, that some guy, just because he’s worth whatever – 10, 20, 40 billion dollars – summons Republican candidates to his office and he says: ‘All right, tell me what you’re going to do for me in order to get the tens of millions of dollars I’m going to give you.’

“My friends, this is not democracy, this is oligarchy.” © Guardian News and Media 2016