Seven Democratic presidential candidates spoke with an intense urgency Friday over who is best equipped to defeat President Donald Trump, just days before a New Hampshire primary that will test whether Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg can continue their success out of Iowa.
In the eighth debate of 2020 primary and the first since the nominating contest began in earnest, most of the White House hopefuls appeared to sense the weight of the moment, as they run short on time to breakthrough in the Democratic field.
Attempting to recover from a self-described “gut punch” after a fourth-place finish in Iowa, Joe Biden showed renewed vigor, calling the audience at Saint Anselm College to their feet at one point to recognize the service of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was ousted from the Trump administration on Friday.
Amy Klobuchar pulled no punches, going down the dias to confront the health care views of Sanders, Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren. And standing on the far rung of the stage, even Tom Steyer showed repeated bouts of fire, pleading with the party to prioritize electability over intraparty squabbles.
“We have to go win a huge victory this year, and we’re in trouble,” Steyer said, appearing exasperated on the focus on relatively minor policy disagreements between his rivals. “Look at these people, who can pull together the Democratic Party? … For goodness sakes, pull it together.”
Here are six takeaways from the debate:
BUTTIGIEG AND SANDERS IN THE LINE OF FIRE
It’s always easy to identify the top-running candidates on a debate stage without having to see a single poll. Just watch who receives the most incoming fire.
At this moment, Sanders and Buttigieg knew they’d earn appreciable attention from their rivals, but it was a more novel experience for the 38-year-old former mayor, who suddenly looks like a growing threat for the nomination.
Biden, who is again in danger of placing behind both of them on Tuesday night, took a double-barreled approach early on, raising the experience of Buttigieg and the cost of Sanders’ plan to provide universal government-funded health care.
“Imagine you’re … walking into Congress and saying, ‘I got this bill. It’s going to provide health care for everybody. I don’t know how much it’s going to cost. We’ll figure it out later,’” Biden said.
Later, he laid into Sanders for a past gun control vote that allowed gun manufacturers to escape liability for crimes committed with the weapons they sold.
Klobuchar attacked Buttigieg for what she saw as his attempts to downplay impeachment proceedings in Washington, while Warren took a swipe at his record on race.
Buttigieg and Sanders locked horns with each other over the best approach to put together a winning general election coalition.
“When our opponent is saying if you don’t go all the way to the edge it doesn’t count, politics that say it’s my way or the highway,” Buttigieg said.
And Sanders later returned the fire about their different financial bases.
“Unlike some of the campaigns up here — Pete — I don’t have 40 billionaires contributing to my campaign,” Sanders said.
SANDERS’ BIPARTISAN PITCH
Sanders has long faced questions about whether a democratic socialist could win the White House. And on Friday, the Vermont senator took on the issue of electability directly, explaining how he could widen his base of liberal, primarily young white voters — and even striking a note of bipartisanship.
Sanders, a registered independent who caucuses with the Democrats, pointed out that he’d won a quarter of Republicans in his Senate reelection bid. “In fact, there were periods when I was in the House of Representatives … where I passed more bipartisan amendments than any other member of the House,” Sanders noted. “There are ways we can work with the Republicans on issues where we have a common basis.”
Sanders also addressed criticism that he can’t bring Democrats together. Buttigieg accused Sanders of embracing “a politics that says, ‘it’s my way or the highway,’” suggesting that would be a losing recipe in the general election.
“The way you bring people together is by presenting an agenda that works for the working people of this country, not the billionaire class,” Sanders replied. He even offered an olive branch, of sorts, to Hillary Clinton, his primary rival in 2016 who has been highly critical of Sanders in recent interviews. “I hope Secretary Clinton and all of us can come together,” he said.
BIDEN FIGHTS BACK
Biden needed a strong debate showing in the worst way. He did his best to deliver one.
The former vice president gave a far more spirited performance Friday than he has in recent debates, in what felt like a de-facto response to critics who have said he’s underwhelmed on the campaign trail.
At different times, Biden offered an animated critique of Sanders’ support for single-payer health care, said some opioid executives should “go to jail,” asked the gathered audience to stand up and applaud Vindman, and in perhaps his strongest moment, defended himself against criticism that voters were looking for a nominee who hasn’t spent so many years in Washington.
“The politics of the past, I think were, not all that bad,” Biden said, responding directly to Buttigieg’s criticism. “I wrote the Violence Against Women’s Act, I managed the $900 billion Recovery Act, which in fact put millions and million of dollars into his city before he c iname and helped save his city.”
“So I don’t know what about the past of Barack Obama and Joe Biden was so bad,” Biden continued. “What happened? What is it that he wants to do away with?”
Biden’s apparent fourth-place finish in Iowa was, in his words, a “gut punch” for his campaign and he acknowledged he likely wouldn’t win in New Hampshire, either. But if Biden supporters were looking for a signal that he’s not ready to bow out of the race, they received it Friday.
STEYER BRINGS THE FIRE
Steyer has been mostly an afterthought in previous debates, but the former hedge fund manager and climate change activist was involved in some of the most memorable exchanges of the night on Friday. Just days after airing the first negative ad of his campaign — a spot that criticizes both Buttigieg and Biden ? — Steyer launched pointed attacks at both men in person.
Steyer said he was “worried about Mayor Pete,” suggesting he would not be able to “go toe to toe” with Trump on the debate stage. And Steyer later put Biden on the spot, calling on him to disavow a high-profile supporter in South Carolina who allegedly made racist remarks.
It was not the only time Steyer steered the debate towards issues of race, bringing up the need for the party to focus more on black and brown voters, and highlighting (more than once) his support for reparations for African-Americans. “We have not said one word tonight about race. Not one word,” Steyer noted 90 minutes into the debate. “Are you kidding me?”
Steyer argued the only way to beat Trump in November is to “appeal to the diverse parts of the Democratic Party,” which he suggested he was best-equipped to do.
“I am doing that right now, with 24% of blacks down in South Carolina, with high numbers of Nevada,” Steyer noted.
WARREN’S QUIET NIGHT
All the candidates on stage seemed ready to mix it up with their rivals — with one notable exception.
Warren was content to stick to her own message Friday, eschewing blunt criticism of her opponents in favor of remarks that often mirrored her campaign trail stump speech.
For a candidate who has argued that she is the best positioned of all the Democratic candidates to unify the party, the civil approach made sense. But it also left her absent from some of the night’s most memorable exchanges, and left open the possibility that the third-place finisher in Iowa might not have seized a breakthrough moment.
Her campaign manager, in fact, tweeted during the debate to criticize moderators for asking Biden so many questions, when he had finished behind her earlier in the week. Warren did speak for about two minutes less than the former vice president, according to The New York Times.
THE ELEPHANT NOT IN THE ROOM
Since launching his presidential campaign in late November, Michael Bloomberg has neither qualified nor come up in a meaningful way at a Democratic debate. That changed Friday when the moderators asked Warren about the multibillionaire former mayor of New York City, who has already pumped hundreds of millions of his own dollars into the campaign.
“I don’t think anyone should be able to buy their way into a nomination or being elected president of the United States,” responded Warren, who has made fighting big money in politics a staple of her campaign.
“I don’t think people look at the guy in the White House and think, ‘Can we get someone richer?’” Klobuchar added.
It was a reflection of how Bloomberg has increasingly become a looming presence over the race thanks to his unprecedented spending. He’s skipping the first four nominating contests in February, betting that he can jumpstart his campaign in the delegate-rich states that vote on Super Tuesday.
Warren, Klobuchar and the other Democratic candidates may be able to direct their attacks in person at the next debate. The Democratic National Committee eliminated the donor threshold for the ninth debate in Nevada, opening the door for Bloomberg to qualify even though he has refused to take outside contributions.