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Hillary Clinton speaks in Madison, WI, in March 2016 (L); Bernie Sanders speaks in Seattle, WA, in March 2016. (Photos: Scott Olson—Getty Images (L); Matt Mills McKnight—Getty Images)

Progressive Debate Deepens as Sanders Battles Clinton for New York

On 'wedge' issues like nuclear power and minimum wage, Sanders and Clinton tout different approaches

Deirdre Fulton

Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have finally agreed on a date for what is sure to be a spirited debate in Brooklyn ahead of New York's primary on April 19.

The candidates will face off on Thursday, April 14 for a debate moderated by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer.

To accommodate the invitation, Sanders—who initiated the call for another televised debate on the heels of his landslide victories in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington state—was forced to reschedule a New York City rally. His campaign had put forward a number of other suggested dates.

"We hope the debate will be worth the inconvenience for thousands of New Yorkers who were planning to attend our rally on Thursday but will have to change their schedules to accommodate Secretary Clinton's jam-packed, high-dollar, coast-to-coast schedule of fundraisers all over the country," Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said in a statement.

Both campaigns are looking beyond Tuesday's Wisconsin primary to the contest in the Empire State, where Sanders grew up and Clinton served two terms as U.S. Senator.

On Monday, for example, Sanders called for the closure of Indian Point Energy Center in Westchester County, a longtime source of controversy and concern among local residents.

"I am very concerned that the Indian Power nuclear power reactor is more than ever before a catastrophe waiting to happen," Sanders said. "In my view, we cannot sit idly by and hope that the unthinkable will never happen. We must take action to shut this plant down in a safe and responsible way. It makes no sense to me to continue to operate a decaying nuclear reactor within 25 miles of New York City where nearly 10 million people live."

The plant is roughly 15 miles from Clinton's home in Chappaqua, New York. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists' (UCS) annual review of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) performance and nuclear plant safety, more than 60 percent of the "near miss safety violations" in 2015 occurred at three plants owned by Entergy Corp., including Indian Point.

Clinton, The Journal News reports, "has long expressed concern about Indian Point, sponsoring legislation that would require an independent safety assessment of the plant when she represented the state in the U.S. Senate."

But Clinton has called for improving operations at the plant rather than shutting it down entirely.

"Even in a perfect world where energy companies didn't make mistakes, nuclear power is and always has been a dangerous idea because there is no good way to store nuclear waste," Sanders said Monday. "That is why the United States must lead the world in transforming our energy system away from nuclear power and fossil fuels."

MSNBC reporter Alex Seitz-Wald noted that "Sanders is the only candidate in either party who wants to end nuclear energy production, which currently accounts for 20% of U.S. electrical generation. But this is the first time Sanders has leaned into the issue in a high-profile way as a potential wedge issue between rival Hillary Clinton and the Democratic base."

A Gallup poll released last month showed that for the first time, a majority of Americans—54 percent—oppose nuclear energy.

Still, on this as with other issues, Clinton appears to favor the incremental approach. As New York's State of Politics blog reports:

During an exclusive sit down with Capital Tonight yesterday, Clinton scoffed at Sanders’ Indian Point comments, portraying him as late to recognize the significance of this issue, but also naive about the difficulties surrounding an immediate shutdown.

“I’m glad he has discovered Indian Point,” Clinton said of her rival. “When I was a senator, I went after oversight, I went after safety. And again, Governor Cuomo is calling for it to be closed. There’s a current Nuclear Regulatory Commission study being undertaken.”

“We also have to be realistic and say: You get 25 percent of the electricity in the greater New York City area from Indian Point,” Clinton continued. “I don’t want middle class tax payers to see a huge rate increase. So this needs to be done in a careful, thoughtful way.”

A similar dynamic is playing out in the fight over a $15 federal minimum wage, which Politico says is "the latest reminder of how the Vermont senator's challenge to Clinton on her adopted home turf is complicating her planned pivot to a general election message."

Sanders has made raising the national minimum wage to $15 a key plank of his campaign platform.

While Clinton claims to support a $15 minimum wage in places like Los Angeles or New York—where she, on Monday evening, joined Gov. Andrew Cuomo on stage for a victory rally celebrating New York's landmark wage hike—the former secretary of state officially backs a $12 federal minimum wage along with local efforts to reach $15. 

This inconsistency, and seeming co-option of Sanders' message, led spokesman Briggs to say of Clinton on Tuesday: "She has in this instance, as others, tried to pose as someone who is sympathetic to the idea of a $15 [national] minimum wage without actually being sympathetic to it."

"It's the same rhetorical shifting we've seen from her on other issues," Briggs noted, "like fracking and offshore oil drilling and what to do about climate change and the Keystone pipeline and trade deals."

Added Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver on CNN Tuesday morning, "As we've seen throughout this campaign, the secretary seems to want to move toward Bernie's positions. Unfortunately, they're not really sincere moves, and I think were she to get the nomination, I think you would see her backing off some of those 'progressive moves' that she's made over the course of this campaign."

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