The debate comes at a pivotal moment for both candidates. Buttigieg has opened a lead in recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, while Warren has been forced to modify her Medicare for All proposal to address persistent criticism over its scope and cost.
The debate — held at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta and hosted by MSNBC and the Washington Post — was milder than the four earlier contests. In the early going, Buttigieg was mostly ignored. The attacks on Warren were tamer than those in the fourth debate, when former Vice President Biden and Buttigieg directly challenged her plans to finance her health care expansion.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar offered the most pointed criticism of Warren’s proposals on Wednesday, arguing it was not smart to kick 150 million people off private insurance or offer free college to rich kids.
“I’d love to staple free diplomas under people’s chairs,” Klobuchar said. “I’m not going to go for things that sound good on a bumper sticker and throw in a free car.”
Sen. Cory Booker critiqued Warren’s proposal for a two-percent wealth tax on those with more than $50 million in assets. He acknowledged that the government needs to raise revenue, but argued that a wealth tax would be too “cumbersome.” He also argued that Democrats should be less focused on taxing wealth and more focused on creating it.
Biden’s campaign had telegraphed beforehand that he would go after Warren. But he did little more than restate his argument that Medicare for All would cost $30 trillion and that a majority of Democrats don’t support it. He did not repeat criticisms of Warren that he has offered in other venues, such as that she is “elitist.”
Toward the end of the debate, several candidates took aim at Buttigieg, who has served two terms as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, but has never held statewide office. Klobuchar used a question about voting rights to argue that the 37-year-old mayor does not have the requisite experience.
“This is a good example where he has said the right words but I actually have the experience,” Klobuchar said, citing bills she has proposed on the topic.
Buttigieg noted his military service in Afghanistan, and said his experience as a local official is just as valuable. “There’s more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?” he said.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard also got into a fight with Buttigieg over his statement over the weekend that he would be open to sending troops to Mexico to fight cartel violence. Buttigieg called that an “outlandish” distortion of his views, and criticized Gabbard for meeting with Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
The moderators tried to stoke a fight between Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris, but Harris refused to take the bait. Harris had previously criticized the Buttigieg campaign for using a stock photo of a Kenyan woman in a website touting his plan for racial justice. But when asked to repeat her criticism on the debate stage, Harris said that Buttigieg had already apologized, and instead took the opportunity to argue that the Democratic Party has too often taken black women voters for granted. Buttigieg, who has struggled with black voters, readily agreed with her.
“I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don’t yet know me,” Buttigieg said.
Earlier on, Harris sparred with Gabbard, who had said she wanted to reclaim the Democratic Party from the “military industrial complex and other greedy corporate interests.”
Harris said that Gabbard had “spent four years full-time on Fox News criticizing President Obama,” and called her out for “buddying up to Steve Bannon.” Giving a chance to fire back, Gabbard said that Harris would continue the foreign policy status quo and pursue the “Bush-Clinton-Trump” policy of regime change wars.