Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders held a fierce and substantive debate in Flint, Michigan, on Sunday night, disagreeing over trade, guns and the auto industry bailout while joining forces to call for the resignation of state governor Rick Snyder over the city’s water contamination crisis.
Shortly after they took the stage, the Associated Press announced that Sanders had won the Democratic caucuses in Maine, his eighth victory in the 2016 presidential primary race. In a statement, the leftwing Vermont senator thanked Maine’s voters and claimed “momentum” heading into Tuesday’s primaries in Michigan and Mississippi.
Related: Bernie Sanders wins Maine caucuses as Marco Rubio takes Puerto Rico
Onstage he and the former secretary of state had one of their sharpest exchanges yet when they were asked by a member of the audience about trade and job creation, an issue Sanders had been attacking Clinton over in the lead-up to the debate.
“Secretary Clinton supported virtually every one of the disastrous trade agreements written by corporate America,” Sanders said.
“He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry,” Clinton replied. “I think that is a pretty big difference.”
“If you are talking about the Wall Street bailout, where some of your friends destroyed this economy … ” Sanders began.
“You know…” Clinton interjected, before Sanders cut her off: “Excuse me, I’m talking,” he said, dismissing her with his hand.
Sanders repeatedly attacked Clinton’s past support for international trade agreements, an issue he is attempting to use against her in Michigan in order to win blue-collar votes in the rust-belt industrial state.
“I am very glad … Secretary Clinton has discovered religion on this issue,” Sanders said, referring to her position on trade. “We’ve lost 60,000 factories since 2001, they’re going to start having to — if I’m president — invest in this country, not in China, not in Mexico.”
The candidates began the debate by addressing the city’s toxic water crisis. Sanders recalled his meetings with residents: “I have to tell you what I heard, and what I saw literally shattered me. And it was beyond belief that children in Flint, Michigan, in the United States of America in the year 2016 are being poisoned.”
Clinton, who spotlighted the issue in an earlier debate, reminded the CNN audience that she had pushed the Democratic National Committee to host a debate in Flint.
“It is raining lead in Flint, and the state is derelict in not coming forward with the money that is required,” Clinton said, joining Sanders for the first time in calling for the governor to “resign or be recalled”.
Sanders and Clinton have both been campaigning hard in Michigan, which holds its primary on Tuesday.
Sanders has work to do if he hopes to win the state; Clinton is leading him by a double digit margin, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average .
Just before the debate, Sanders earned the endorsement of former Michigan Senator Don Riegle, a native of Flint. During an impromptu press conference, Riegle said the Clintons’ support for the Nafta trade agreement “destroyed the Flint I loved”.
Clinton and Sanders also tussled over whether gun manufacturers should be legal liable when their weapons are used in crimes.
Clinton said that giving immunity to gun makers and sellers “was a terrible mistake” and noted that she and Sanders were on opposing sides of the debate.
Sanders has said his support for the 2005 law was in part an effort to protect small gun shops in his home state of Vermont. He told the audience in Flint that Clinton’s approach could amount to “ending gun manufacturing in America”.
Clinton referred in emotional terms to the Sandy Hook massacre and told Sanders: “You talk about corporate greed. The gun manufacturers sell guns to make as much money as they can.”
At turns during the debate, Sanders sharply cut Clinton off or seemed to reprimand her for interrupting. Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communication director, called his tone and behaviour “desperate and disrespectful” and said it was a sign of his campaign’s mounting frustration at the current dynamic of the primary race.
“It was quite mild compared to Republicans, and I also think it was really substantive. It’s not even in the same universe as the Republican debate, but he does seem to be frustrated and that was apparent,” she told the Guardian after the debate.
When asked if the senator’s tone was too harsh, Jeff Weaver, his campaign manager, said it was not, and said he hoped the analysis of the debate remained on the issues.
“He made a lot of forceful points tonight, there were a lot of forceful points to make, frankly on issues like trade and the economy, and he made those points and [laid] out the differences between them,” Weaver said in the spin room after the debate.
Weaver dismissed Sanders’s heavy losses on Super Tuesday and said the campaign was making progress among African American voters, seen as crucial to winning the Democratic nomination.
“It’s not about margins, it’s about making progress,” Weaver said. “There’s a long campaign to go. We are making substantial progress … At this point, in many ways, what we’re confronting is not by race but by age.”
Weaver called Clinton a “regional candidate” despite the fact that she has claimed three states outside of the South, including a narrow victory in Massachusetts, where Sanders had hoped to win.
There were also moments of levity during the debate. “We are, if elected president, going to invest a lot into mental health, and if you watch these Republican debates, you’re going to know why,” Sanders said.
“He’s called you a communist,” host Anderson Cooper told Sanders of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
“That’s one of the nice things he’s called me,” Sanders replied.
Clinton said she had won more votes than Trump in the primaries so far, and predicted that his “bigotry, his bullying, his bluster are not going to wear well on the American people”.
Sanders declared: “I would love to run against Donald Trump,” adding that polls showed “Sanders v Trump does a lot better than Clinton v Trump”.
Related: Democratic debate turns scrappy as Sanders wins Maine presidential caucuses — live
Perhaps the most powerful moment came when Sanders was asked about his Judaism, which he has been accused of downplaying on the campaign trail.
“I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of who I am,” Sanders said.
“Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical, and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping, and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler’s concentration camp.”
He concluded: “I’m very proud of being Jewish and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being.”
Actor Mark Ruffalo briefly joined reporters in the spin room to discuss Sanders’s performance.
“The message that Bernie is giving us is one of imagination,” said Ruffalo, who has campaigned on the senator’s behalf. “It’s one of great ideas and one that takes America to its greatest potential … and early on that message really captured the minds and the hearts of feeling people.”
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