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Clinton and Sanders show no restraint in New York brawl

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. ride the subway in the Bronx as she campaigns in New York.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. ride the subway in the Bronx as she campaigns in New York.

(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

The brutal sport of mixed martial arts may be banned in New York, but it didn’t seem that way on the campaign trail as Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton took bare-knuckle swings at each other Thursday.

New York’s primary is still a week and a half away, but already, each candidate was suggesting the other was not fit to be president.

The White House, New York’s governor, New York City’s mayor and several members of Congress all entered the fray, mostly rushing to the front-runner’s defense and scolding Sanders for saying Clinton was not qualified for the job.

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On an Air Force One flight to Chicago, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said President Obama believed Clinton was not only qualified to take over the Oval Office, but that she “comes to the race with more experience than any non-vice president” in recent history.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose liberal backers overlap considerably with Sanders’, advised the Vermont senator to quickly back away from his remark.

“I think he should get away from something that clearly doesn’t make sense,” the mayor told MSNBC.

Emily’s List, the fundraising group for liberal women in politics, accused Sanders of embracing the same narrative as “Hillary haters” on the right.

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But while Sanders appeared to be getting the worst of the fight on Thursday, his supporters contended accurately that he wasn’t the one who had started it. Clinton had lured him into the fray on Wednesday by raising questions about his fitness to serve, using language that carefully stopped just short of calling him unqualified, but clearly implied that judgment.

Asked on MSNBC on Wednesday if she thought Sanders was qualified to be president, Clinton said: “Well, I think he hadn’t done his homework and he’d been talking for more than a year about doing things that he obviously hadn’t really studied or understood, and that does raise a lot of questions.”

By that night, Sanders had a laundry list of Clinton positions that, he said, called into question her qualifications: the vote to invade Iraq while a senator, the support of trade deals Sanders calls “disastrous,” the millions of dollars of Wall Street money she and the pro-Clinton super PAC have raised.

Because of all those things, “I don’t believe that she is qualified,” he said.

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As the storm rose around that remark, Clinton slyly held her fire: “I think it’s kind of a silly statement. But he’s free to say whatever he chooses,” she said in an interview on the “Today Show.”

“But I will take Bernie Sanders over Donald Trump or Ted Cruz anytime,” she added.

Sanders, meantime, defended his language.

“If Secretary Clinton thinks we are just from the small state of Vermont, we are not used to this, well, we will get used to it fast,” Sanders said at a news conference in Philadelphia on Thursday morning. “I am not going to get beaten up. I am not going to get lied about. We will fight back.”

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The intensity of the exchanges has some Democrats concerned.

“I think everyone better take a deep breath and be reminded that this is about November,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said of Sanders’ criticisms in an interview. “Let’s cut this stuff out, and let’s get down to real issues.”

Both candidates had been spoiling for a fight in New York, and the notoriously pugnacious media there has been delighted to help flare tempers.

Clinton’s strategists are eager to shut their rival out of the race and put to rest questions about her strength as the potential nominee with a big win in the state where she lives. A significant victory there could add a huge trove of delegates to her stockpile. Anything short of that could prove an embarrassment.

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Sanders, a Brooklyn native, also sees New York as a prize he must win. He is confident that the state’s liberal electorate will be just as moved by his call for “political revolution” as voters in Wisconsin, Washington and the four other states he has won amid an impressive streak in recent weeks. A huge fundraising month in March has provided him with enough money to match Clinton in advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts.

He is quickly trying to adapt to the quirks of the New York political arena, which Clinton has had decades to master over multiple elections.

The front-runner’s comfort with the feisty politics of Gotham was clear even from her simple act of a short subway ride on Thursday morning, from Yankee Stadium two stops up the tracks to 170th Street.

It all looked innocent enough, but for the fact that another Sanders mishap earlier in the week was already New York campaign lore. The Vermonter flubbed a pop quiz by the New York Daily News on subway riding when he talked about using a token to board the train: Tokens haven’t been used in New York for more than a decade.

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“I think it was my first term when we changed from tokens to MetroCards,” Clinton said, expertly withholding a hint of sarcasm. Then she headed to the turnstyle and swiped in, with a massive mob of media in pursuit.

Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.

For more on Campaign 2016, follow @evanhalper

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