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Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders spar over friends and enemies

Last Updated Feb 12, 2016 7:50 AM EST

Now that the primary season is in full gear, Democratic primary voters are deciding whether they are siding with Team Hillary or Team Bernie. In Thursday night's debate, the candidates attempted to tell voters who already belongs in their respective camps -- and who doesn't.

"I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger," Sanders said on the Milwaukee, Wisconsin debate stage, in one of the more unexpected moments of the night. The independent senator took Clinton to task for allying with the controversial former statesman.

Clinton defended her relationship with Kissinger: "You know, I listen to a wide variety of voices that have expertise in various areas. I think it is fair to say, whatever the complaints that you want to make about him are, that with respect to China...his ongoing relationships with the leaders of China is an incredibly useful relationship for the United States of America."

Sanders, however, stayed firm: "Not my kind of guy."

The exchange gave yet another example of the battle between Clinton's pragmatic approach to governing and Sanders' principled vision of leadership. On both foreign policy and domestic agenda issues, Clinton and Sanders hailed their allies. They also debated over how they'd work with opponents, both abroad and at home.

While Sanders said he certainly wasn't taking advice from Kissinger, Clinton pointedly noted that it's unclear just who Sanders would take foreign policy advice from: "Well, I know journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy, and we have yet to know who that is," she said. Sanders simply retorted, "Well, it ain't Henry Kissinger. That's for sure."

Throughout the debate over foreign policy issues, Sanders repeatedly referenced decades-old controversies -- such as Kissinger's record and the 1953 Iranian coup -- to express his disinterest in interventionist foreign policies. He also repeated his well-worn declaration, "I voted against the war in Iraq."

Sanders also acknowledged that Iran is a sponsor of terrorism but defended his interest in working with Iran on issues beyond the nuclear agreement. " I believe that the best way to do that is to be aggressive, to be principled, but to have the goal of trying to improve relations. That's how you make peace in the world," he said.

Clinton gave a more hard-nosed assessment of the United States' relationship with Shia Muslim nation, remarking, "I do not think we should promise or even look toward normalizing relations because we have a lot of other business to get done with Iran."

The former secretary of state was also ready to respond to Sanders' critique of her Iraq war vote: "I do not believe a vote in 2002 is a plan to defeat ISIS in 2016. It's very important we focus on the threats we face today, and that we understand the complicated and dangerous world we are in."

On the domestic front, both candidates did their best to demonstrate their partnerships with minority communities, particularly African-American communities. As Sanders and Clinton head into the South Carolina and Nevada contests, the support of black and Latino voters becomes more significant.

"The American people are looking around and they see a broken criminal justice system," Sanders said in his opening statement, pivoting quickly from his primary focus of income inequality to an issue that disproportionately affects African Americans.

Clinton took an extra step to prove her commitment to the issue: When speaking about criminal justice reform, she specifically mentioned Dontre Hamilton, a Milwaukee man who was fatally shot by the police in 2014. Hamilton's mother was sitting in the debate audience as her guest.

Clinton, however, was put on the defensive when asked about her relationship with another important demographic group for Democrats: women. She was asked to explain why women in New Hampshire voted mostly for Sanders -- and why her ally former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had admonished young women for their enthusiasm for Sanders.

"I feel very strongly that I have an agenda, I have a record that really does respond to a lot of the specific needs that the women in our country face," Clinton said. "But I have no argument with anyone making up her mind about who to support."

The two candidates also sparred over their friends and allies in Washington: Clinton argued that it's unrealistic for Sanders to expect his GOP foes to go along with his left-wing agenda items, like free public college.

"Senator Sanders's plan really rests on making sure that governors like Scott Walker contribute $23 billion on the first day to make college free," she told the Milwaukee audience. "I am a little skeptical about your governor actually caring enough about higher education to make any kind of commitment like that."

On three separate occasions, Clinton said Sanders needs to "level with" the American people about the impractical nature of his proposals.

By contrast, she argued that she could effectively work with Republicans on immigration reform:

"I think we have to get to comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship," Clinton said. "And as president I would expand enormous energy, literally call every member of Congress that I thought I could persuade. Hopefully after the 2016 election, some of the Republicans will come to their senses and realize we are not going to deport 11 or 12 million people in this country. And they will work with me to get comprehensive immigration reform."

Clinton also tried to argue that she's a stronger ally to President Obama.

"Today Senator Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test," she said, referencing a MSNBC interview in which Sanders argued Mr. Obama failed to work with Congress to address the priorities of the American public.

"This is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama," Clinton continued. "In the past he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment....I just couldn't disagree more with those kinds of comments."

Sanders called Clinton's attack a "low blow" and praised Mr. Obama's work on the economic recovery.

In her closing statement, Clinton made the case she'd be an ally for all Americans, while undercutting Sanders' prime focus on the wealth gap.

"I am not a single- issue candidate, and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country," she said. "I think that a lot of what we have to overcome to break down the barriers that are holding people back -- whether it's poison in the water of the children of Flint, or whether it's the poor miners who are being left out and left behind in coal country, or whether it is any other American today who feels somehow put down and oppressed by racism, by sexism, by discrimination against the LGBT community...that's what I want to take on."