WESTERVILLE, Ohio (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren drew the most darts on Tuesday from her fellow Democrats in the fourth 2020 presidential debate, with her steady rise in opinion polls making her a target from rivals also trying to break out in the race.
Warren, standing at the center of the debate stage with former Vice President Joe Biden, the other leading contender, was not fazed by the extra attention.
The debate took place exactly three weeks after the start of an impeachment inquiry against Republican President Donald Trump, who took a verbal beating from Democrats over his attempts to persuade Ukraine to launch an investigation into Biden.
Only 12 of the 19 Democrats seeking the party’s nomination qualified for the Ohio debate. Here is a look at how each of the top candidates did:
Biden saw the silver lining of a more competitive race: Warren, his closest challenger for the No. 1 spot, drew more attacks from lower-polling candidates, allowing Biden to stay above the fray.
The former U.S. senator from Delaware bragged about being the only Democratic presidential candidate with the ability to achieve his goals in Washington, and he accused Warren and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of being vague about how they would pay for their healthcare overhaul.
Biden was authoritative in discussing Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria and reforming the Supreme Court.
“I’m going to say something that is probably going to offend some people here, but I’m the only one on this stage who’s gotten anything really big done,” Biden said.
He avoided any major embarrassments over his son Hunter’s role in the Trump impeachment inquiry. Trump has made the unsubstantiated allegation that Biden improperly tried to aid Hunter Biden’s business interests in Ukraine.
“My son did nothing wrong,” Biden said early in the debate. “I did nothing wrong.”
Booker recently got the $1.7 million his campaign said he needed to stay in the race, but he failed to secure a breakout moment during Tuesday’s debate.
The U.S. senator from New Jersey, who hovers slightly over 1% in opinion polls, played it safe in Ohio, stressing a positive message over attacks on his rivals. He urged fellow Democrats to stay focused on beating Trump in November 2020.
“I have seen this script before,” Booker said. “It didn’t work in 2016, and it will be a disaster for us in 2020.”
Even as he supported the launch of impeachment proceedings, Booker said the process of investigating Trump’s actions should play out by the book.
“I share the same sense of urgency of everybody on this stage. I understand the outrage that we all feel,” he said. “But we have to conduct this process in a way that is honorable, that brings our country together, doesn’t rip us apart.”
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has offered himself as the moderate alternative to Biden and came into the debate with a clear game plane to attack Warren, the leading progressive candidate.
Buttigieg was the first of several candidates to challenge Warren over how she will pay for her Medicare for All plan, based on the existing government-run Medicare program for Americans 65 and older. She refused to say whether she would have to raise taxes on middle-class families and instead said they would see no rise in overall costs.
“Well, we heard it tonight, a yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer,” he said of Warren.
“This is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this,” said Buttigieg, whose healthcare plan keeps private insurance in place for those who want it.
Buttigieg also tussled with former congressman Beto O’Rourke. Buttigieg has labeled as unrealistic the idea that the federal government should force gun owners to turn over their high-powered assault rifles. O’Rourke has said Democrats should show courage in pushing for gun reforms.
“I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal,” Buttigieg said during the debate.
Castro did not repeat his strategy of going after Biden as he did during the September debate. This time around, he spoke relatively little at all.
The former U.S. housing secretary said he would support novel programs to improve economic inequality in the country, including potentially piloting universal basic income to see if that kind of initiative could work.
“I was in Las Vegas a few months ago, and I visited people who were homeless, who are living in storm-drainage tunnels under the Las Vegas strip in the shadow of hotels and casinos that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, where people from around the world are spending so much money on vacations,” he said. “We can do better than that.”
One of two military veterans on the stage along with Buttigieg, Gabbard took a page out of Trump’s playbook and targeted the media.
“Just two days ago, the New York Times put out an article saying that I’m a Russian asset and an Assad apologist and all these different smears,” said Gabbard, a U.S. representative from Hawaii, who once met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “This morning, a CNN commentator said on national television that I’m an asset of Russia. Completely despicable.”
When asked about Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria, Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran, criticized U.S. involvement in the region as “regime change war.”
“Donald Trump has the blood of the Kurds on his hand,” she said, but added he followed a long line of American politicians from both parties who had enabled the conflict to rage on - along with the “mainstream media.”
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor from California, started out strong making her case for why she believes Trump should be not only subject to an impeachment inquiry but removed from office.
“He has committed crimes in plain sight,” she said of the Republican president.
But Harris, who has slipped in recent polls, did not find a viral moment in the noisy debate despite a couple of tries. As her competitors argued over details of their healthcare plans, she chastised them and demanded to know why no one was talking about women’s health and abortion rights.
After her attack on Biden during the Democrats’ first debate led to a temporary surge in support, Harris tried in the fourth debate to take on Warren. Harris aggressively asked Warren to support her demand that Twitter shut down Trump’s influential account, saying she was “surprised” that the Massachusetts lawmaker had not done so.
But Warren responded deftly, saying: “I don’t just want to push Donald trump off Twitter. I want to push him out of the White House.”
Klobuchar, a U.S. senator from Minnesota, found opportunities on the crowded debate stage to offer her candidacy as a moderate alternative to those of her more liberal rivals, specifically Warren.
Klobuchar said Democrats should be focused on bolstering the 2010 Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, by creating a public option instead of tossing it out to create a Medicare for All system.
“I appreciate Elizabeth’s work but, again, the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something you can actually get done,” Klobuchar said. “I think there is a better way that is bold, that will cover more people, and it’s the one we should get behind.”
In an exchange about Warren’s proposed 2% tax on wealth over $50 million, Klobuchar again honed in on her underlying message that there was more than one way to achieve goals that every candidate on Tuesday’s stage shares.
“We just have different approaches. Your idea is not the only idea,” Klobuchar said to her fellow senator, adding that she would repeal “significant portions” of the Republican tax law enacted in 2017 to ensure the wealthy pay their fair share.
Former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas got his biggest moment on Tuesday for again calling for gun owners to be forced to turn over high-powered assault rifles. O’Rourke has focused on stronger gun reforms after a mass shooting left 22 people dead in his hometown of El Paso.
Rival Buttigieg has called the proposal an unrealistic “shiny object,” a description that prompted a sharp exchange.
“I am listening to my fellow Americans, to those moms who demand action, to those students who march for our lives, who, in fact, came up with this extraordinary bold peace plan that calls for mandatory buybacks,” O’Rourke said.
“Let’s follow their inspiration and lead and not be limited by the polls and the consultants and the focus groups. Let’s do what’s right,” O’Rourke added.
He also tangled with Warren over her calls for a wealth tax. He said the tax was part of the solution but that he felt the senator appears to vilify the rich.
“Sometimes I think that Senator Warren is more focused on being punitive and pitting some part of the country against the other instead of lifting people up and making sure that this country comes together around those solutions,” O’Rourke said.
For U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the three-hour debate tested his stamina after a heart attack earlier this month renewed questions about whether the 78-year-old is up for the White House job.
Those questions also have dogged Biden, 76, and Warren, 70.
The debate marked Sanders’ return to public campaigning. Asked how he would reassure voters of his health, he said: “We are going to mount a vigorous campaign all over this country,” before thanking well-wishers for their support while he was ill.
In a discussion with Buttigieg and Warren over whether taxes would rise as a result of the government-funded healthcare he and Warren support, Sanders said his Medicare for All plan would cause taxes to increase for some people, but overall costs for most Americans would go down.
“The overwhelming majority of people will save money on their healthcare bills,” Sanders said. “But I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up. They’re going to go up significantly for the wealthy. And for virtually everybody, the tax increase they pay will be substantially less - substantially less than what they were paying for premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.”
Businessman Tom Steyer had one of the toughest jobs on Tuesday night, introducing himself to voters on a national debate stage for the first time since his late entry into the race.
Unlike his rivals, the California billionaire did not make a point of going after Warren. But he embraced a favorite Warren topic when he called for ending corporate influence in Washington.
Steyer also made the case that his success as the founder of the hedge fund Farallon Capital would give him an edge over Trump in discussions on the economy.
“We have to understand that Mr. Trump is going to be running on the economy. He’s going to be saying he’s the person who can make it grow,” said Steyer, who calls Trump a fraud and a failed businessman. “I would love to take him on as a real businessman.”
Warren, who has steadily chipped away at Biden’s lead in opinion polls, found herself the favored target of her rivals in a nod to her new status in the race.
Warren was repeatedly asked whether her support for a Medicare for All healthcare plan would result in higher taxes. She repeatedly replied that such a plan would result in lower costs for American families, and ducked the tax question.
Her rivals sensed an opening. Sanders, who wrote the Senate bill that Warren supports, said that “it is appropriate to acknowledge taxes will go up,” while total costs would go down. “At least Bernie is being honest here,” Klobuchar chimed in. Buttigieg said Warren’s demurrals were yet another example of a “yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer” in Washington.
Warren remained composed during the attacks and promoted herself as an agent of bold action in Washington, citing her creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after the 2008 financial crisis.
“All of the Washington insiders and strategic geniuses said: ‘Don’t even try, because you’ll never get it passed.’ And sure enough, the big banks fought us, the Republicans fought us, some of the Democrats fought us, but we got that agency passed into law,” Warren said.
Businessman Andrew Yang stuck to his message that economic dislocation led to the election of Trump and that he knows how to turn that around.
Yang’s economic solutions include an unorthodox guaranteed minimum income of $1,000, which he says would work better than a jobs guarantee embraced by Sanders.
“A federal jobs guarantee does not take into account the work of people like my wife, who is at home with our two boys, one of whom is autistic,” said Yang, whose candidacy has resonated with votes enough to boost his poll standings above some better-known Democrats in the race.
Asked whether he supported impeaching Trump, Yang said he did but that the problems did not end there.
“We shouldn’t have any illusions that impeaching Donald Trump will, one, be successful, or two, erase the problems that got him elected in 2016,” Yang said.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Trevor Hunnicutt, Jarrett Renshaw, Sharon Bernstein and Amanda Becker; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney