Candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination during a debate in South Carolina. From the left: Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer. (source: youtube.com/CBSNews)

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In a scrappy Democratic debate frequently aimed at current frontrunner Bernie Sanders and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, there was enough air in the room to let some references to rural issues poke through.

Guns

A bit of daylight showed between candidates on their rhetoric – if not policy – on gun control.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders took heat for previous votes on gun legislation, though he said he now has a D-minus voting record from the National Rifle Association. 

Sanders’ firearm votes in the past have reflected his constituency in rural Vermont. He previously voted against an assault-rifle ban and against holding firearm manufacturers liable for the misuse of weapons.

“Right now, my view is we need to expand background checks, end the gun show loophole, and do what the American people want, not what the NRA wants,” Sanders said.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar said the way to get gun legislation passed is to work with moderate gun owners in parts of the nation where recreational gun use is more prevalent. 

“I look at these [gun] proposals and say, do they hit my uncle Dick in the deer stand? They do not. So coming from a proud hunting state and still being able to pass this legislation is going to be the key.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden was less conciliatory. “I want to tell you, if I’m elected, NRA, I’m coming for you, and gun manufacturers, I’m going to take you on and I’m going to beat you,” he said. “I’m the only one who has done it.”

Biden said he “beat the NRA twice” with an assault weapon ban and magazine-size restrictions and the Brady Bill, which imposed background checks and gun-purchase waiting periods.

Rural Housing

Klobuchar brought up rural areas in a question about housing policy, saying that affordable housing problems plague both urban and rural areas. 

“This isn’t just an urban problem,” she said. “It’s a big urban problem, but it’s also a rural problem, where we have housing deserts and people want to have their businesses located there, but they’re not able to get housing.”

She said urban-rural coalitions are the key to passing housing legislation. “The way you do it is by building a coalition between urban and rural so you can pass affordable housing and finally get it done.”

Rural Healthcare

Moderator Margaret Brennan of CBS News’ “Face the Nation” was responsible for the debate’s deepest exploration of a rural topic. In a question to Klobuchar, Brennan said: 

“Rural areas have populations who are older, sicker, and poorer than non-rural communities. And they have to travel farther to get medical help when they need it. Expanding coverage is going to be useless if there are no providers to go to. So how would you ensure that there is available health care in rural areas?”

Klobuchar said she’s supporting legislation that could make it easier to establish rural emergency care and protect rural critical-access hospitals. She said supplying medical personnel such as doctors, home health-care workers, and nursing assistants, is a major problem. She said loan assistance for healthcare professionals who serve rural areas after school is one solution. 

Klobuchar also tied the lack of rural healthcare professionals to immigration reform. “I have passed the bill that allows doctors from other countries that study in our medical schools to stay and serve in rural areas. We need to expand that,” she said.

Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, tied rural health disparities to race and voter suppression:

“When I was born, there was no difference in your life expectancy, if you were born in a rural area or a city. Now the gap is the biggest it has been in a generation, and that is particularly affecting black rural families in places like South Carolina. We’re seeing hospital closures right and left. And we’re seeing them, in particular, in states where Medicaid was not expanded, something that is hurting black and poor white families and is largely the result of racial voter suppression.”

Last night’s primary debate in South Carolina was the 10th opportunity for the candidates to square off on stage, and was the last to occur before next week’s Super Tuesday primaries, when 14 states will cast their votes. In a campaign that has been defined by a crowded field, and ever-increasing verbal fireworks over who should emerge from it, rural issues haven’t often received much time or consideration. But for candidates who are facing potential do-or-die scenarios in the weeks ahead, last night offered a chance, however brief, to keep rural issues on the agenda, and more importantly, to make a case for rural voters.