Democratic candidates found common ground in denouncing President Trump, but struck a more fractious tone on healthcare, gun policy and money in politics during a crowded presidential primary debate Tuesday night.
The most pointed broadsides were aimed at Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, reflecting her ascendance in the polls, while she and fellow septuagenarian rivals, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Vice President Joe Biden, sought to assure voters they are hardy enough to occupy the Oval Office.
Twelve candidates — the most ever to appear on a debate stage — squared off in an arena on the leafy campus of Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, a state Democrats lost to Trump by 8 percentage points in 2016. In the Rust Belt setting, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota eschewed “Midwestern nice” for a more pugnacious approach in selling themselves as the best candidates to take back the state.
It was the fourth debate of the primary season, and the first since House Democrats began an impeachment investigation of Trump after his entreaties to Ukraine’s president for damaging information on a potential 2020 opponent, Biden, spilled into public view.
All candidates on the stage support the inquiry and jostled largely to outdo one another in denouncing the president as corrupt.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California, asked whether her support for removing Trump from office is fair to the president, said her stance involved “just being observant, because he has committed crimes in plain sight.”
The sole note of hesitancy on the subject came from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, the last of the Democratic candidates to embrace impeachment.
“If the House votes to impeach, the Senate does not vote to remove Donald Trump, he walks out and he feels exonerated, further deepening the divides in this country that we cannot afford,” Gabbard said.
Tom Steyer, the Bay Area hedge funder-turned-liberal activist, used his debate stage debut to remind voters of his long-standing quest for impeachment.
“Two years ago, I started the Need to Impeach movement, because I knew there was something desperately wrong at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.,” he said.
The impeachment controversy has been fraught territory for Biden, whose son Hunter’s position on the board of a Ukrainian gas company is an innuendo-laden obsession for Trump and his allies. There is no evidence Biden or his son committed any wrongdoing.
The candidate largely dodged the question about the appropriateness of Hunter Biden serving on that board while his father served as vice president. Biden instead pointed to the public comments his son made earlier in the day, in which he expressed some regret for his judgment but denied he did anything wrong or illegal.
“My son’s statement speaks for itself,” Biden said. “I did my job. I never discussed a single thing with my son about anything having to do with Ukraine. No one has indicated I have.”
Biden then shifted the focus to Trump. “He is going after me because he knows if I get the nomination I will beat him like a drum,” he said.
The impeachment maelstrom, which has forced Biden to revamp his message on the campaign trail, appeared to inoculate him from onstage attacks from his rivals, who appeared wary to echo Trump’s line of attack.
“That was so offensive,” said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker of the questions directed at Biden. “The only person sitting at home that was enjoying that was Donald Trump.”
While Biden drew few jabs, Warren faced most of the incoming, as her rivals criticized her for being evasive and overly optimistic about the feasibility of her sweeping policy proposals.
After Warren refused to state definitively whether her support for “Medicare for all” would lead to higher taxes on middle-class families, emphasizing instead overall lower costs, Buttigieg laced into her for avoiding “a yes or no answer.”
“Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this,” he said.
Warren was also singled out by Harris, who renewed her call to ban Trump from Twitter and pressed her fellow senator to sign on.
“I was surprised to hear that you did not agree with me on this subject of what should be the rules around corporate responsibility for these big tech companies,” Harris told Warren.
Warren, who initially laughed off the idea on the campaign trail, did not sign on, even as she renewed her broader call to break up tech giants. She noted she would not take money from executives from these companies at closed-door fundraisers, an implicit swipe at Harris who has relied substantially on big givers.
“I don’t just want to push Donald Trump off Twitter,” Warren said. “I want to push him out of the White House.”
While Warren largely parried with lower-polling rivals, she also was strafed by Biden, who questioned her ability to execute her plans.
Warren responded to Biden by highlighting her successful crusade — while he was vice president — to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Biden took exception.
“I went out on the floor and got you votes,” he said of his lobbying to get the bureau approved, his voice tipping into a roar. “I got votes for that bill. I convinced people to vote for it.”
“I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law,” Warren said, as Biden smirked at the lack of thanks directed his way.
“But understand this: People told me, go for something little, go for something small, go for something the big corporations will be able to accept,” she continued. “I said, no, let’s go for an agency that will make structural change in our economy.”
The conflicts were not limited to the front-runners.
Buttigieg appeared particularly eager to draw contrasts, rekindling a fight he had with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas over the latter’s call to take assault weapons from gun owners rather than a voluntary buyback program favored by most Democratic candidates.
O’Rourke denied he would send law enforcement door-to-door to retrieve guns but struggled to explain how he would otherwise enforce the proposal beyond relying on voluntary compliance from gun owners.
“Look, Congressman, you just made it clear that you don’t know how this is actually going to take weapons off the streets. If you can develop the plan further, I think we can have a debate about it,” Buttigieg said.
“We cannot wait for purity tests, we have to just get something done,” he said.
O’Rourke said there was not a binary choice; a president could take more moderate steps such as tighter background checks and “red flag” laws while pursuing the buyback. He called on Democrats to follow the lead of gun control groups and “not be limited by the polls and the consultants and the focus groups.”
Buttigieg, a military veteran and the first openly gay major presidential candidate, shot back: “I don’t need lessons from you on courage — political or personal. Everyone on this stage is determined to get something done.”
With the three front-runners in the race all in their 70s — and one of them recovering from a heart attack suffered earlier this month — the moderators turned to the issue of age.
Sanders, who looked energetic after a heart procedure, said voters would see in the coming days that he is in fine shape to run the country.
“Let me invite you all to a major rally we are having in Queens, New York,” the 78-year-old Brooklyn native said, referring to a big campaign event planned for Saturday, teasing a “special guest.” News broke during the debate that progressive rising star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York would endorse him at the rally.
“We are going to be mounting a vigorous campaign all over this country,” Sanders said. “That is how I think I can reassure the American people.”
Biden, who will turn 77 next month and at times has appeared tired on the campaign trail, touted his age as a selling point and vowed to release his full medical records before a single vote is cast. When pressed, he said he’d release them by the Iowa caucuses in February.
“One of the reasons I am running is because of my age and experience,” he said. “With it comes wisdom. ... I know what the job is. I’ve been engaged.”
Warren, who is 70 but often projects considerable pep on the stump, also made no apologies.
“I will out-work, out-organize and outlast anyone,” she vowed. “And that includes Donald Trump, Mike Pence or whoever Republicans get stuck with.”
Mason reported from Los Angeles, Bierman from Westerville and Halper from Washington.