(Reuters) - Four hours and 20 candidates later, Democrats completed their first round of presidential primary debates on Thursday.
Before millions of television viewers on back-to-back nights, the 2020 White House hopefuls took aim at Republican President Donald Trump and each other on several key policies.
The Colorado senator looked to his own family background to criticise the administration of Republican President Donald Trump for separating families seeking asylum at the U.S. border with Mexico, days after squalid conditions at detention centres drew international attention.
“When I see these kids at the border, I see my mom, because I know she sees herself, because she was separated from her parents for years during the Holocaust in Poland,” said Bennet. “The president has turned the border of the United States into a symbol of nativist hostility.”
The former vice president came into Miami as the consensus Democratic front-runner. He left looking a bit battered, bothered and bewildered.
His long record in the Senate and as Barack Obama’s No. 2 gave his opponents plenty of ammunition. No one took more advantage than U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, who blasted Biden for his opposition to school busing and his boasting of working with segregationists.
That same record, however, allowed Biden at times to stake his claim as the nominee best suited to take on Trump, as he did late in the debate when he talked about rebuilding America’s allies. “That’s what I would do. That’s what I have done,” Biden said. “And I know how to do it.”
U.S. Senator Cory Booker has struggled to gain traction, pegging his campaign message not to criticizing his opponents or Trump, but instead talking about love and a positive path forward.
On Wednesday night, Booker appeared to break though, delivering a series of responses that vocalized the outrage many in his party feel about the president.
“I live in a low-income black and brown community. I see every single day that this economy is not working for average Americans. The indicators that are being used, from GDP to Wall Street’s rankings, is not helping people in my community,” the New Jersey senator said. “It is about time that we have an economy that works for everybody, not just the wealthiest in our nation.”
Buttigieg largely passed his first test on the national stage, likely further intriguing Democratic voters who may have heard of the buzz surrounding his candidacy but had not seen him live.
His best moment may have come answering a question about the issue that so far troubled his campaign: race. Asked why there were not more black police officers in his home of South Bend, Indiana, where Buttigieg is mayor, he took full responsibility. “I couldn’t get it done,” he said, showing a refreshing candour.
Addressing the shooting of an African-American by a white police officer earlier this month, Buttigieg said, “I am determined to bring about a day when a white person driving a vehicle and a black person driving a vehicle, when they see a police officer approaching, feels the exact same thing.”
Buttigieg may not have settled the controversy ensnaring his campaign, but he showed himself to be an accountable leader groping for solutions.
Julian Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development under former President Barack Obama, has largely flown under the radar for the first six months of his campaign.
But Castro, the only Hispanic in the crowded field of Democrats, rocketed into national attention with a strong performance in Wednesday night’s debate. His biggest moment came when he took rival and fellow Texan, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, to task for his immigration policies.
“Let’s be very clear,” Castro said. “The reason that they’re separating these little children from their families is that they’re using Section 1325 of that act, which criminalises coming across the border to incarcerate the parents and then separate them. Some of us on this stage have called to end that section, to terminate it. Some, like Congressman O’Rourke, have not. And I want to challenge all of the candidates to do that.”
The mayor of New York tried to position himself as the loudest - if not the best-known - voice in his party’s left wing. He succeeded in breaking into the conversation during the first night’s debate, forcefully advocating for a $15 minimum wage and replacing the private health insurance system with a government-run programme for all.
“What we’re hearing here already in the first round of questions is that battle for the heart and soul of our party,” de Blasio said during Wednesday’s debate, calling for higher taxes on the wealthy and busting up corporations with too much influence. “This is supposed to be the party of working people.”
Former U.S. Representative John Delaney was the first Democrat to declare a candidacy for president and has pumped millions of his own dollars into his campaign. A former business executive, Delaney is running as a moderate in a party that has consistently moved to the left.
Delaney’s biggest moments in Wednesday night’s debate came when he criticized his rivals for moving too far from the centre, calling for a moderate approach to issues like health care and taxes.
“We should be the party that keeps what’s working and fixes what’s broken,” he said. “I mean, doesn’t that make sense? I mean, we should give everyone in this country health care as a basic human right for free, full stop. But we should also give them the option to buy private insurance. Why do we have to stand for taking away something from people?”
U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran, has struggled to build any momentum behind her candidacy, in part thanks to staunch criticism from her own party about her foreign policy positions – including her decision in 2017 to have a secret meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad without informing her party leadership.
Gabbard, of Hawaii, sought to find a place for herself on the debate stage Wednesday night among more well-known candidates. She waded into the limited foreign policy debate, strongly urging the nation to avoid conflict with Iran.
“I served in the war in Iraq at the height of the war in 2005, a war that took over 4,000 of my brothers and sisters in uniforms’ lives,” she said. “The American people need to understand that this war with Iran would be far more devastating, far more costly than anything that we ever saw in Iraq.”
The U.S. senator from New York has had difficulty gaining any traction in the race, but in Miami she tried to make the most of her opportunity to cast herself as the field’s most ardent defender of reproductive rights.
She asserted that perhaps a woman in the Oval Office is best suited to fight off Republican attempts to limit those rights.
“When we beat President Trump and Mitch McConnell walks into the Oval Office, God forbid, to do negotiations, who do you want when that door closes to be sitting behind that desk, to fight for women’s rights?” Gillibrand said. Unfortunately for Gillibrand, her evening was largely overshadowed by Kamala Harris’ strong performance.
The U.S. senator from California had a breakout night, chiding bickering opponents for engaging in a “food fight” and taking on front-runner Joe Biden on issues including race and immigration.
Harris, who is of Jamaican and Indian descent, criticized Biden for recent comments that he had worked with segregationist senators to craft bipartisan legislation decades ago.
“You also worked with them to oppose busing,” Harris said, referring to 1970s efforts to integrate public schools. “And there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
Harris also touted her experience as attorney general of California and as a prosecutor in San Francisco to say she had personally seen the results of gun violence.
The laconic former Colorado governor, struggling to get a foothold in the primary, made a pitch to moderate voters. He warned of the dangers for the Democratic Party if they pursue polices espoused by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
“The bottom line is, if we don’t clearly define that we are not socialists, the Republicans are going to come at us every way they can and call us socialists,” Hickenlooper said. Later he argued, “You don’t need big government to do big things.” It was a strong line that, like Hickenlooper himself, has gotten little attention.
The governor of Washington state managed to deliver a solid one-liner even as he took heat for being insensitive to gender politics during the first night of debate.
Asked to name America’s biggest security threat in one word, Inslee pointed to the current Republican president. “The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump,” he said on Wednesday night. “And there’s no question about it.”
But he stumbled by labelling himself as the leading candidate for defending of women’s abortion rights. Senator Amy Klobuchar cuttingly pointed out that he shared a stage with three women who had all fought hard for their rights.
A three-term moderate senator from Minnesota, Klobuchar held her ground during the first night of the debate, delivering a few strong lines without managing to break out of the pack.
She criticised Trump’s brand of Twitter diplomacy as stoking near constant danger of war, an approach that she called “foreign policy in our bathrobe at 5:00 in the morning.”
“I’m someone that can win and beat Donald Trump,” she said during Wednesday’s debate, highlighting her past electoral wins in parts of her state friendly to Republicans. “I have won every place, every race, and every time.”
Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s debate performance did little to bolster a campaign struggling to live up to the high expectations on his entry to presidential race.
His explanation of why his proposed health care reforms would not go so far as to replace private insurance plans drew an attack from Bill de Blasio.
The other Texan in the race, Castro, called him out on immigration. Castro said O’Rourke should join him in support of repealing a federal statute that he said has criminalised border crossings to incarcerate immigrants and controversially separate children from their parents. O’Rourke, a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, said his views were misrepresented in the exchange on Wednesday night.
Yet the sparring hardly helped O’Rourke to restore the aura of rock-star cool that made him a sensation within the Democratic Party last year in his surprisingly strong bid for a U.S. Senate seat in Texas. His folksy campaign style transferred awkwardly to the formal debate stage and his decision to deliver some remarks in Spanish became a social media distraction as he tried to appeal to Latino voters.
Asked a softball question about his climate change plan, he tried to explain his campaign philosophy. “You’ve got to bring everybody in to the decisions and the solutions to the challenges that we face,” O’Rourke said. “That’s why we’re travelling everywhere, listening to everyone.”
A moderate congressman from Ohio, Tim Ryan seized his moments in the spotlight during the Wednesday night debate to argue that his party needs to be talking to the working-class Americans he represents.
“We have a perception problem with the Democratic Party,” he said. “We are not connecting to the working-class people in the very states that I represent in Ohio, in the industrial Midwest.”
But with limited speaking time during the debate, it was not evident Ryan made that connection with Democratic primary voters.
“They’ve tried to divide us - who’s white, who’s black, who’s gay, who’s straight, who’s a man, who’s a woman,” he said. “And they ran away with all the gold, because they divided the working class. It’s time for us to come together.”
The independent senator from Vermont, who early polls show in second place behind Biden among Democratic voters, was one of only four candidates over both nights who raised their hands when asked whether they would eliminate private health insurance in exchange for a government-provided plan, or Medicare-for-All.
He admitted the plan would require a tax increase but said overall people would pay less for health care. Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, was asked whether that label would hurt Democrats as they seek to defeat Republican incumbent Donald Trump.
“The last poll I saw had us 10 points ahead of Donald Trump,” Sanders said. “Because the American people understand that Trump is a phony, that Trump is a pathological liar and a racist and that he lied to the American people during his campaign.”
The debate on Thursday descended early into a shouting match among the candidates after Swalwell, 38, a congressman from California’s San Francisco Bay Area, all but accused front-runner Joe Biden of being too old to run.
Swalwell recalled going to a Democratic Party event in California at the age of six and hearing then-candidate Biden tell an audience it was time to pass the torch to a new generation.
“Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago,” he said. “He’s still right today.” Biden, 76, quipped in response: “I’m still holding onto that torch.”
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren is working to build a campaign pegged to hearty policy proposals and squarely situated in the most progressive wing of her party. She has called for vastly expanding government including universal health care and child care and education programs.
The senator from Massachusetts was lauded as having a mistake-free debate performance on Wednesday night. Warren stuck to her script, talking at length about her litany of policy proposals.
“When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple. We need to call it out. We need to attack it head on,” she said. “And we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy and in our country.”
The best-selling author and self-help guru often seemed like she was inhabiting another planet in a galaxy far, far away from her fellow Democrats.
When asked what her first issue would be as president, she replied that she would, on day one, call “the prime minister of New Zealand, who said that her goal is to make New Zealand the place where it’s the best place in the world for a child to grow up. And I would tell her, girlfriend, you are so wrong, because the United States of America is going to be the best place in the world for a child to grow up.”
Williamson’s candidacy may be going nowhere so far, but she produced one of the debate’s most unforgettable moments.
The businessman from New York kept his answers short and did not jump into the verbal melees that broke out as candidates jostled for attention and air time. In fact, he spoke less than any other candidate, according to trackers at the New York Times, who said Yang talked for less than three minutes during the two-hour debate.
When he did respond, Yang was colloquial, notably declaring that the Russians were “laughing their asses off” about interfering in the 2016 election on behalf of Trump.
“Russia is our greatest geopolitical threat, because they have been hacking our democracy successfully and they’ve been laughing their asses off about it for the last couple of years,” Yang said. “We should focus on that before we start worrying about other threats.”
Reporting by Sharon Bernstein, Ginger Gibson, James Oliphant and Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Shumaker