| Andrea Billups

Hillary Clinton takes new road in Florida

YBOR CITY, Fla. — In the heart of historic Ybor City, where cigars are hand-rolled and both liquor and cafe con leche flow freely, Hillary Clinton faced a decidedly friendly crowd Thursday after her toughest debate yet with Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders in Miami Wednesday night.

With old-school funk music blaring inside The Ritz nightclub, Hillary greeted about 400 Tampa Bay-area supporters one day after a challenging Univision-sponsored debate where she was grilled on immigration reform as well as her own festering legal issues. 

But Clinton pivoted Thursday to talk about infrastructure problems and protecting the environment, taking swipes at Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott for allegedly ordering those in his administration not to use the words "climate change."

"You just gotta shake your head at that," Clinton added, also chiding presidential contender and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, whom she suggested joined Scott's curious response when asked about what they thought of climate change and responded by saying "I don't know, I'm not a scientist."

"There's a way to cure that," said Clinton to laughs. "Go talk to a scientist … It's the height of neglect not to recognize that Florida will be the most at risk for climate change" of any state in the nation.

Clinton, urging improvement and protection of Tampa's bustling port and for a high-speed rail linking Orlando to Tampa, also slammed Scott for not accepting federal funds for investment in infrastructure.

"We have to do more to ensure Tampa stays a center for goods coming in and out," Clinton said. "We're falling behind. It is not possible to remain economically competitive in a very competitive global economy if we don't have the infrastructure and goods from place to place."

Although not mentioning GOP front-runner Donald Trump by name, she nonetheless distinguished herself from him. "I am running a campaign on what results I can get for you. The other side is running on insults. They truly are going after every right we've built up over the last few years."

She pledged to defend reproductive rights for women, Planned Parenthood and marriage equality, while criticizing voter-integrity laws that she described as "trying to limit the electorate." She also pledged to overturn the Supreme Court's ruling in the campaign finance case, Citizens United.

Clinton also noted she supported President Obama's right to nominate a Supreme Court successor to the late Antonin Scalia.

The upbeat campaign stop in sunny Tampa came after Clinton and Sanders exposed perhaps their biggest differences yet in multiple tense exchanges about their legislative records during their latest and most contentious debate.

Moderator Jorge Ramos, famously kicked out of a Donald Trump rally last year, pointedly asked her whether she would leave the race if she ultimately was indicted, to which Clinton seemed irritated.

"Oh, for goodness," Clinton bristled. "It's not going to happen. I'm not even answering that question."

But Ramos pushed back hard and Clinton reluctantly had to respond. “I’m going to give the same answer I’ve been giving for many months. It wasn’t the best choice. I made a mistake. It was not prohibited. It was not in any way disallowed. And as I have said, and as now has come out, my predecessors did the same thing and many other people in the government,” Clinton defended.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday showed Clinton opening up a commanding lead over rival Sanders, garnering 62 percent against Sanders' 32 percent among likely Democratic voters.

Sanders was set to hold his own rally Thursday evening at the Florida State Fair grounds, after a morning event on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.

Continuing a pro-immigrant theme, Clinton's Florida supporters, including U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who represents Florida's 14th District, praised her investment in civil rights.

"The story of Ybor City is the story of the American dream and opportunity for all of us," said Castor, noting the struggle and heart of the early Ybor settlers. "We've got to have a champion in the White House standing up for people. That's why I'm supporting Hillary Clinton," Castor told the crowd.

"It's really important not to take this for granted," Castor warned of the election, noting Clinton's lead but concern over turnout. "This year the polls have been a little screwy. It's hard to predict. It's very important that you go out," and vote, she said.

Other local officials who support Clinton urged greater voter enthusiasm.

"We need Obama election fever back. We need to remember the feeling we had in 2008 on election night in a park in Chicago," said Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez, in warming up the crowd.