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In debate pushback to 'establishment' dig, Clinton raises gender

"Honestly, Sen. Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, exemplifying the establishment."

DURHAM, New Hampshire -- In a Democratic primary that has been largely fought on Sen. Bernie Sanders' terms and issues, Hillary Clinton hasn't gotten to be the transformative candidate. But at Thursday’s MSNBC debate, she made the risky choice to argue that as a woman, she could be.

“Honestly, Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment,” Clinton said.

RELATED: Clinton jabs Sanders on 'establishment' comment

It echoed an earlier conflict between the campaigns after Sanders, asked about Planned Parenthood, NARAL and the Human Rights Campaign endorsing Clinton, replied that "we're taking on the political establishment.... and some of these groups are part of the establishment.” The groups are indeed influential within the Democratic party, but the Clinton campaign and the groups in questions fiercely pushed back, pointing out that Planned Parenthood, for one, has been in literal and figurative crosshairs.

Clinton also made a point to raise in her opening and closing statements in Thursday's debate “the continuing challenges of racism, sexism, of discrimination against the LGBT community."

It is easy to forget, as Clinton is on the defensive for her speaking fees and donations from Wall Street, as she tries to find her footing in an anti-establishment moment, that we have never had a woman president. And it may not matter much to many Sanders supporters, who argue that they support a woman president, just not this woman. But it’s fair to say Clinton is caught in a Catch-22. No woman but Clinton has ever come close to the presidency. But the very gravitas and experience that any women in public life is required to have in abundance, and the first female president in particular, is now being held against her.  

"It’s funny that it doesn’t have the sizzle as a new exciting thing for a lot of people," EMILY's List founder Ellen Malcolm mused in an interview with MSNBC this week, referring to Clinton potentially being the first female president. In the early years of her group, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women, "We needed to build a familiarity with women running for office." Now, that very familiarity helps Clinton seem like old hat.  

At the same time, she is trying to do something that has never been done before, and it has costs. Bernie Sanders is a man who expresses himself vociferously, but it is Clinton’s voice that has come under the most negative scrutiny. On "Morning Joe" this week, Washington Post editor Bob Woodward suggested that Clinton needed to “kind of get off this screaming stuff." During Thursday’s debate, Bob Cusack, the editor in chief of the Hill, a political newspaper, tweeted, “When Hillary Clinton raises her voice, she loses.”

Clinton and her campaign rebutted what they saw as a double standard arguably before it was even actually at issue: When Bernie Sanders referred to “all the shouting in the world” wouldn't get us to gun control, Clinton responded, "Sometimes when a woman speaks out, some people think it’s shouting." 

After the debate Thursday, Clinton supporter and New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, said, "There has often been a different standard" on how men and women running for office are judged. Asked for an example, she said, "I think speaking fees. How many men who are running for president have been asked about the speaking fees they’ve taken?" 

As for Clinton's implicit point that gender has disqualified her from being part of the establishment, Sanders' press secretary, Symone Sanders, responded in an interview with MSNBC, “Yes, women can be part of the establishment... To me, that’s just like asking can a black person be part of the establishment, can a white person be part of the establishment. One’s gender or race is not the thing that determines ‘the establishment.’” 

Clinton didn't get much chance to talk much about gender on Thursday night, but in her closing argument, she tried to point out that class isn't the only barrier in America: "Yes, we have income inequality, but we have other forms of inequality we need to stand up against." That one felt personal.