Elizabeth Warren came under sustained attack from her Democratic rivals during Tuesday night’s presidential debate, a reflection of the threat her ascendant candidacy poses to the crowded field of hopefuls competing to take on Donald Trump in the 2020 US election.
Twelve Democratic candidates took to the stage in Westerville, Ohio, for the largest presidential primary debate in modern US history, and the first since the launch of an impeachment inquiry into the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate his leading rival, Joe Biden.
Biden and Warren clashed in one of the most explosive moments of the debate, the first since she surged into a virtual tie with the former vice-president in many Democratic opinion polls. Warren also found herself the target of barbs from other candidates, mainly moderates, over her leftwing positions on healthcare, taxes and big tech.
The debate opened with a display of unity over the House of Representatives’ rapidly unfolding impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump, with the Democrats unloading on the “criminal in the White House” and “the most corrupt and unpatriotic president we have ever had”.
Biden, who has been dragged into the impeachment maelstrom by Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that he and his son were involved in wrongdoing in Ukraine, defended his conduct.
“My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong,” Biden said, arguing that Trump’s baseless attacks revealed Trump’s fear of running against him in a general election.
“He’s going after me because he knows if I get the nomination, I will beat him like a drum,” Biden said.
In a marked shift from previous debates, Biden drew almost no criticism from his Democratic rivals in the wake of Trump’s sustained attacks on his family, which some voters worry have left the former vice-president vulnerable.
There was another rare moment of unity later after Sanders, 78, the oldest candidate in the field, thanked his supporters and his competitors for their well wishes as he recovered from suffering a heart attack two weeks ago.
“I’m healthy, I’m feeling great,” Sanders said before inviting the audience to attend his Bernie’s Back rally in New York this weekend, at which the New York congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is poised to give him her coveted endorsement.
It was a high-stakes event for several of the candidates on stage who have not yet qualified for next month’s debate in Georgia. With less than four months until voting begins in Iowa, the lower-tier contenders are running out of time to break through the crowded Democratic field.
That meant ideological divides over healthcare – and the attacks on Warren – flared early in the debate. The Massachusetts senator has embraced Sanders’ Medicare for All healthcare plan but, unlike Sanders, has resisted efforts to pin down how she would pay for for the sweeping overhaul of the American healthcare system.
“I will not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle-class families,” Warren said without elaborating.
Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who escalated his attacks on Warren’s healthcare plan ahead of the debate, seized on her pivot: “We heard it tonight: a yes or no question that did not get a yes or no answer. Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything, except for this.”
Warren fired back that Buttigieg’s healthcare plan – “Medicare for All who want it” – was actually “Medicare for all who can afford it” and would leave millions of Americans uninsured.
“At least Bernie is being honest here,” interjected the Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, a moderate who delivered her most forceful debate performance yet. “The difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something you can actually get done.”
Sanders continued his refusal to attack Warren despite her rise. But he agreed that it was “appropriate” to press the candidates for a financial accounting of their economic proposals even as he stressed that under a single-payer healthcare system Americans would pay “substantially less than what they were paying for premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.”
In a later exchange, the Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke branded Warren’s economic prescriptions as “punitive” and said she appears more focused on “pitting some part of the country against the other instead of lifting people up”.
Warren shot back: “I’m really shocked at the notion that anyone thinks I’m punitive.” She then reprised a version of the speech that helped catapult her onto the national stage when she ran for senator in 2012.
“You made a fortune in America, you had a great idea, you got out there and worked for it, good for you,” she said. “But you built that fortune in America. And I guarantee you built it in part using workers all of us helped pay to educate.”
— CNN (@CNN) October 16, 2019
After a tempered performance for much of the debate, Biden also laced into Warren after she touted as a major accomplishment the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, overcoming fierce resistance from Wall Street and Washington to build an agency that she said represented “structural change in our economy”.
In one of the most furious exchanges of the evening, Biden raised his voice and demanded that Warren give him credit for his role in helping to create the agency.
“I went on the floor and got you votes,” Biden, who was vice-president at the time, shouted as he jabbed his hand in Warren’s direction. “I convinced people to vote for it. So let’s get those things straight, too.”
Warren, with a steely expression, replied: “I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law.”
The audience gasped and Biden chuckled, as if to acknowledge the slight. “You did a hell of a job in your job,” he said.
The New Jersey senator Cory Booker warned that the Democrats risked playing into Trump’s hands: “Tearing each other down because we have different plans is unacceptable. I have seen this script before.”
The three-hour spectacle also touched on Trump’s widely condemned decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria, which drew a heated back-and-forth between Buttigieg and the Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard, the two veterans on stage, who accused one another of supporting deeply flawed foreign policy agendas. Biden said the president’s decision paved the way for a resurgence of the Islamic State and warned darkly that Isis fighters are “going to come here” and “damage the United States of America”.
A range of other Democratic priorities, including guns, reproductive rights and the supreme court were debated, but there were no questions from the CNN/New York Times moderators about key issues such as the climate crisis, LGBTQ rights, immigration or voter suppression.
Trump won Ohio by 8.5 percentage points in 2016, the widest margin of any “swing” state. The margin of victory in traditional battleground states is typically much closer, as it was in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the three midwestern states that delivered Trump the White House.
The 10 candidates who took part in last month’s third debate in Texas all qualified for Tuesday’s event, including Tom Steyer, a billionaire activist who made his first debate appearance.
Also participating were the US senator Kamala Harris, former housing secretary Julián Castro, and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Younger Democratic candidates, including Buttigieg, 37, and Yang, 44, have argued it is time for new leadership in a Democratic party driven by the diverse grassroots energy of younger activists.
Sanders’ health problems highlighted his age and that of the other top White House contenders – Biden is 76 and Warren is 70, while Trump is 73 – in a race featuring a debate about a generational change in leadership.
Addressing the question of age, Warren vowed to “outwork and out-organize and outlast anyone and that includes Donald Trump, [vice president]Mike Pence, or whoever the Republicans get stuck with.” Biden said he was running in part because of his long record and experience. With age came wisdom, he said, making the pitch: “I’ve watched it, I know what the job is, I’m engaged.”
The Democratic National Committee again will increase the fundraising and polling criteria to qualify for next month’s debate in Georgia. So far, only eight of the 12 candidates participating in Ohio would qualify, according to a CNN analysis. Nineteen contenders remain in the Democratic race overall.