WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The second round of Democratic presidential primary debates laid bare sharp ideological divides as 20 White House hopefuls wrestled with a central question: Between centrist and progressive agendas, what is the best way to defeat Republican President Donald Trump next year?
On the first night of back-to-back debates on Tuesday and Wednesday held in Detroit, leading liberals Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders came under fire from moderate rivals who labeled their progressive ideas “political suicide” that will cost the their party the November 2020 election.
In a reversal on Wednesday, front-runner Joe Biden’s centrist agenda was questioned repeatedly by progressives on the debate stage.
Here is a look at how each of the 20 candidates did on the Detroit debate.
MICHAEL BENNET, Wednesday
The 2020 race has been an uphill climb for the U.S. senator from Colorado, who is largely unknown by the American public. But Bennet earned sustained applause from the Detroit theater crowd on Wednesday when he responded to a question about how he would heal the racial divide in the country.
The problem goes beyond Trump, Bennet said.
“When there’s a group of kids in this country that don’t get preschool through no fault of their own and another group does, equal is not equal,” said Bennet, a former superintendent of the Denver public schools. “And we’ve got a group of K-12 schools that are good because families can spend a million bucks and you’ve got the Detroit public schools that are as segregated as they were. Equal is not equal.”
JOE BIDEN, Wednesday
Biden did not come into Wednesday’s debate necessarily having to win it – he remains the Democratic front-runner by far — but he could not afford another subpar performance like he suffered in the first round of debates in Miami in June.
This time, Biden appeared more assertive and more prepared for attacks from his rivals. He came out blasting Trump while praising America’s diversity.
“So, Mr. President, let’s get something straight: We love it. We are not leaving it. We are here to stay. And we’re certainly not going to leave it to you,” Biden said in his opening statement.
CORY BOOKER, Wednesday
U.S. Senator Cory Booker, hovering at a disappointing 1 percent in polls, hoped he might find a breakout moment in attacking Joe Biden’s long record on criminal justice.
“Mr. Vice President has said that, since the 1970s, every major crime bill - every crime bill, major and minor - has had his name on it. And, sir, those are your words, not - not mine,” Booker said.
But Biden was prepared with a counterpunch, hitting back at Booker, one of two black candidates on stage, over “stop and frisk” tactics used by police when he was mayor of Newark, New Jersey.
Booker bristled at Biden’s criticism. “Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community, you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.”
STEVE BULLOCK, Tuesday
The Montana governor was a newbie to the debate stage, having entered the race too late to qualify for the first round. He quickly attempted to make an impression by labeling progressives’ proposals as “wish-list economics.”
Bullock accused Sanders, in particular, of proposing policies made for “press releases” rather than being realistic reforms.
He reminded viewers how difficult it had been to pass the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare achievement, which Sanders and fellow liberal Warren would junk in favor of a single-payer “Medicare-for-All” system.
“It used to be just Republicans who wanted to repeal and replace,” Bullock said. “Now, many Democrats do as well.”
PETE BUTTIGIEG, Tuesday
As he did in the first debate, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and fundraising dynamo showed a steadiness on stage and a good command of policy. He received one of the biggest ovations of the evening when he implored the candidates to dismiss Republican criticism of their proposals.
“Look, if it’s true that if we embrace a far-left agenda they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists,” he said. “If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. So let’s just stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it.”
It was a strong line, cannily crafted so Buttigieg did not have to pick a side in the emerging battle between moderates and progressives. Even better for Buttigieg, a former Trump White House aide, Mercedes Schlapp, replied on Twitter: “Yes @PeteButtigieg, you are all crazy socialists.”
JULIAN CASTRO, Wednesday
Julian Castro, another rising Democratic star who has failed to attract more than 1 percent in opinion polls, landed a memorable zinger as he joined the “Kill Biden” crowd.
“First of all, Mr. Vice President, it looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t,” said Castro, who was housing secretary under Obama.
They were arguing over decriminalizing border crossings, which Castro supports and Biden opposes.
BILL DE BLASIO, Wednesday
The mayor of New York City, with not much to lose as he trailed in opinion polls, forcefully embraced liberal causes and challenged his Democratic rivals to do the same if they want to beat Trump in 2020.
“This has to be the party of labor unions. This has to be the party of universal healthcare. This has to be the party that’s not afraid to say out loud, we’re going to tax the hell out of the wealthy,” De Blasio said in closing, directing donations to Taxthehell.com
De Blasio repeatedly went after Biden, drawing a rueful “I love your affection for me” from the former vice president.
He also was a target of criticism, as well as hecklers, over the New York police officer who put a man in a fatal chokehold during a 2014 arrest, a case that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement. The officer remains on the force.
JOHN DELANEY, Tuesday
The first Democrat to declare a candidacy for president was unknown to most voters, but the former member of the U.S. House of Representatives finally landed time in the spotlight on Tuesday night.
Given multiple chances to spar directly with Warren and Sanders over their sweeping policies ranging from healthcare to immigration and trade, Delaney took on the role of the loudest critic of their “impossible” ideas.
“I think Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises, when we run on things that are workable, not fairy tale economics,” Delaney said.
Ultimately, the limelight may not do much to guarantee him a spot in the September debate. The Democratic National Committee has set higher funding and polling requirements to qualify, and Delaney has been stuck at the bottom of opinion surveys.
TULSI GABBARD, Wednesday
The congresswoman from Hawaii is a war veteran on an anti-war crusade, but her biggest impact on the debate was a takedown of U.S. Senator Kamala Harris.
Gabbard, who in 2017 met secretly with a suspected war criminal, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, skewered Harris over her criminal justice record as California’s attorney general.
“There are too many examples to cite but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations then laughed about it when asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” Gabbard said.
Gabbard told top-tier candidate Harris she should apologize to those whose lives were affected. “When you were in a position to make an impact and influence on these people’s lives, you did not,” she said.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND, Wednesday
Struggling to gain traction in the race, the U.S. senator from New York was looking for a chance on Wednesday night to burst into the party’s top tier.
She never found that opportunity but her thoughts on how to quell racial tensions impressed.
“I don’t believe that it’s the responsibility of Cory and Kamala to be the only voice that takes on these issues,” Gillibrand said, citing her 2020 rivals and Senate colleagues Booker and Harris, who are both black.
“I can talk to those white women in the suburbs that voted for Trump and explain to them what white privilege actually is, that when their son is walking down their street with a bag of M&Ms in his pocket, wearing a hoodie, his whiteness is what protects him from not being shot.”
KAMALA HARRIS, Wednesday
The California senator did not repeat the breakout debate performance of June that catapulted her to the top level of the Democratic field. Instead, she often found herself under a barrage of criticism from lesser-known rivals desperate for a breakout moment of their own.
Harris produced the most memorable moment of the first Miami debate when she successfully attacked Biden’s record on race.
She began the Detroit debate by defending her recently released healthcare plan, which Biden’s campaign has called a “have-it-every-which-way approach.”
She still managed to land a few punches when reprising her attacks on Biden’s civil rights record, including his work with segregationist senators decades ago.
“Had those segregationists had their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate, Cory Booker would not be a member of the United States Senate and Barack Obama would not have been in the position to nominate him to the title he now holds,” she said, referring to Biden.
JOHN HICKENLOOPER, Tuesday
The former Colorado governor did not have the kind of breakout moment he needed to bolster his faltering campaign but still produced one of the night’s best punch lines when he assailed Sanders over socialism.
Asked by moderators if the self-proclaimed Democratic socialist is “too extreme” to win the White House, Hickenlooper said embracing Sanders’ radical agenda would doom the party in the general election next year.
“This notion that you’re going to take private insurance away from 180 million Americans ... or the Green New Deal, make sure that every American is guaranteed a government job that they want, that is a disaster at the ballot box,” Hickenlooper said.
“You might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump.”
JAY INSLEE, Wednesday
The governor of Washington state once again renewed his calls for a New Deal-style effort to address climate change, calling it the greatest threat facing the nation and the globe.
“Middle-ground approaches are not enough we must confront the fossil fuel industry,” Inslee said. “Whether we shrink from this challenge or rise to it is the fundamental question of our time.”
But it was not his calls for an environmental revolution that grabbed the biggest applause. It was a jab at Trump.
“We can no longer allow a white nationalist to be in the White House,” Inlsee said.
AMY KLOBUCHAR, Tuesday
Like many of the moderates with her on stage Tuesday night, Klobuchar kicked off the debate by signaling she would make the case for why a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road approach was better than progressive ideals, saying her candidacy was about “bold ideas but they are grounded in reality.”
Unlike her fellow moderates, the three-term senator from Minnesota chose to direct her fire at Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
When asked who on the stage was making promises to get elected, Klobuchar demurred from naming names.
“Everyone wants to get elected, but my point is this: I think when we have a guy in the White House who has now told over 10,000 lies, that we better be very straightforward with the American people.”
BETO O’ROURKE, Tuesday
Former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke’s performance again did little to boost a presidential campaign struggling to live up to the high expectations set by his surprisingly strong, although ultimately unsuccessful, quest in 2018 to oust Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in their home state of Texas.
Despite producing some solid opening lines, he neither had a breakout moment needed to revive his campaign nor was at the center of the conversation even as lesser-known rivals like Delaney clashed head to head with top-tier candidates.
“In the face of cruelty and fear from a lawless president, we will choose to be the nation that stands up for the human rights of everyone, for the rule of law for everyone and a democracy that serves everyone,” O’Rourke said at the beginning of the debate.
O’Rourke’s campaign said he has qualified for the third debate series in September, when the Democratic Party has established more stringent criteria. But his performance on Tuesday likely will do little to restart his flagging fundraising or reverse his downward slide in opinion polls.
TIM RYAN, Tuesday
The moderate congressman from Ohio failed to secure a breakthrough in the debate and his most memorable moment may have been an admonishment of Sanders.
“You don’t have to yell,” Ryan said after Sanders vigorously defended his plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Ryan also took a jab at Sanders when the Vermont senator said polls have him beating Trump in the 2020 election.
“Well, I would just say Hillary Clinton was winning in the polls, too,” Ryan said, bringing back the memory of the Democratic candidate who unexpectedly lost to Trump in 2016.
Ryan, polling below 1% among the two dozen Democratic candidates, put forth a modest goal in his closing remarks, saying, “I hope tonight, at some level, I captured your imagination.”
BERNIE SANDERS, Tuesday
After a somewhat quiet debate performance last month, the Vermont senator came back to his true form - unapologetic and irascible in the face of attacks from rivals trying to ding his progressive armor.
Sanders, who has held onto his second-place standing in most opinion polls competing neck and neck with Warren, delivered a full-throated defense of his progressive policies. Most notably among them was the Medicare-for-All health plan that came under fire from the more centrist candidates.
“I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas. Republicans are not afraid of big ideas,” he said.
ELIZABETH WARREN, Tuesday
Under attack from moderate rivals over her liberal policy positions, Warren swung back and accused her opponents of sounding like Republicans.
As Delaney accused Sanders of trying to take private insurance away with his Medicare-for-All proposal, Warren defended her friend.
“We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take away healthcare from anyone. That’s what the Republicans are trying to do,” she said. “And we should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how to best provide that healthcare.”
Nothing seemed to slow her the rest of the night.
“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for the president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” Warren said to applause.
MARIANNE WILLIAMSON, Tuesday
Self-help guru Williamson has been a long shot to win the Democratic nomination but her faithful following for her spiritual guidance books have helped her qualify for the debates.
On Tuesday, she had one of the loudest applause lines when she pointed to the water crisis in the majority-black city of Flint, Michigan, an hour north of Detroit where the debate was taking place, to highlight racial and economic injustice.
“I lived in Grosse Pointe. What happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe,” she said, referring to the affluent, majority-white area adjacent to Detroit.
“Flint is just the tip of the iceberg ... We have communities, particularly communities of color and disadvantaged communities all over this country, who are suffering from environmental injustice.”
Like last month’s debate performance, she again produced a viral moment when she warned of Trump’s “dark psychic force.”
“If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days,” she said.
Williamson, who has one of the smallest campaigns and is spending nearly all the money she brings in from donors, will need to find a way to capitalize on the moment if she wants to qualify for the third debate in September in Houston.
ANDREW YANG, Wednesday
The businessman from New York leaned mostly on his plan to give citizens $1,000 a month to help recover from the severe loss of jobs due to automation.
His answers were brief – he spoke for shortest time, according to a New York Times tracker – and he largely stayed out of the food fight.
Yang said he offers a much different vision – and face – for the nation.
“We need to do the opposite of much of what we’re doing right now, and the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math,” he said.
(This story refiles to fix typo in Bennet in seventh paragraph)
Reporting by James Oliphant, Ginger Gibson, Doina Chiacu, Jarrett Renshaw and Amanda Becker, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Bill Trott