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Democratic debate highlights: Experience and race at forefront as healthcare talk fades

ATLANTA (Reuters) - The fifth presidential debate featured sharp exchanges on Wednesday over outreach to minority voters, the role of U.S. diplomacy and which of the Democratic contenders is best prepared to lead.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidates during their fifth 2020 campaign debate at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. November 20, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Unlike past debates, which were dominated by how the candidates favour expanding health insurance coverage to millions of Americans, Democrats touched on the issue only briefly.

Here are some highlights from the stage in Atlanta, where 10 of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to take on Republican President Donald Trump in November 2020 debated foreign policy, gender and the benefits of experience.


The night featured an extended conversation about gender, experience and who has the broadest appeal.

Pete Buttigieg, whose only political experience is as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, sought to turn his lack of time in Washington into an advantage.

“I know that from the perspective of Washington, what goes on in my city might look small, but frankly where we live, the infighting on Capitol Hill is what looks small,” he said.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who previously said a woman with Buttigieg’s experience would not have made it to the debate stage, reiterated her argument that women are held to a higher standard.

“Otherwise, we could play a game called ‘Name your favourite woman president,’ which we can’t do,” she said to applause.

The United States has never sent a woman to the White House.

Klobuchar then took aim at former Vice President Joe Biden’s claim that he alone can win in swing states, pointing out she has carried Republican districts in her home state of Minnesota.

In response, Biden touted his record of passing bipartisan legislation and his long experience in Washington.

“There’s no time for on-the-job training,” he said. “I spent more time in the Situation Room, more time abroad, than anyone up here.”


Buttigieg was pressed on his failure to gain traction among black voters, a crucial bloc in the Democratic nominating contests.

Buttigieg, who has risen in polls in the mostly white early-voting state of Iowa, has been criticized by the black community in South Bend, where he fired the city’s first black police chief in 2012 and faced protesters earlier this year after a police officer shot a black man.

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, who is black, said the Democratic nominee should have experience representing all people and should not court black voters only at election time.

“Democrats have taken for granted the constituency that has been the backbone of the Democratic Party,” Harris said.

Buttigieg acknowledged he faces a “challenge” in introducing himself to many black voters, before pivoting to his own experience as a gay man.

“I do not have the experience of ever being discriminated against because of the colour of my skin,” Buttigieg said. “I do have the experience of feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights coming up for debate.”

Biden, who leads the Democratic field in support from black voters in opinion polls, later said the reason he was chosen as former Democratic President Barack Obama’s vice president was because of his “long-standing relationship with the black community.”


Asked what he would say to Russian President Vladimir Putin in their first phone call, technology entrepreneur Andrew Yang answered: “I’m sorry I beat your guy,” referring to Trump.

“It’s a ‘sorry, not sorry,’” U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren interjected to laughter.

“And second, I would say ‘the days of meddling in American elections are over,’” Yang added.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sought to differentiate his stances on military intervention and diplomacy from those of Trump and Biden. Sanders reiterated his goal of bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan but said, “unlike Trump, I will not do it in a tweet at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

Referring to Biden, Sanders said “one of the big differences between the vice president and myself is he supported the terrible war in Iraq and I helped lead the opposition against it.”

Sanders said the United States needs to “bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together in a room” to work out their differences and the “same thing goes with Israel and the Palestinians.”


U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard doubled down when asked about her recent clash with the party’s 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.

Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran who has centred her campaign on opposition to overseas military intervention, said the Democratic Party “continues to be influenced by the foreign policy establishment in Washington, represented by Hillary Clinton and others’ foreign policy, by the military-industrial complex and other greedy corporate interests.”

Harris defended Clinton, saying Gabbard criticized former Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration on Fox News and met with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

Buttigieg criticized Gabbard for the latter decision, saying he “would not have sat down with a murderous dictator like that.”

Reporting by Amanda Becker and Simon Lewis; additional reporting by Joseph Ax, Ginger Gibson and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis