The latest meeting of seven Democratic presidential candidates on a debate stage began on Friday night in New Hampshire with a rapid-fire round of questions about each of the seven contenders’ electability and suitability for office.
Health care policy and the question of continuing investigations of President Donald Trump also generated heated responses from the stage at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., even if he is defeated in November.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., took aim at Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and his self-described label as a Democratic Socialist. “That’s the label the president is going to lay on everyone who is running” if Sanders is the Democratic nominee, said Biden.
Buttigieg and Sanders are leading the Democratic pack in this week’s delayed results of the Iowa Caucuses, where Biden was a distant contender while polls indicate Buttigieg is gaining steam in New Hampshire, where the next Democratic primary will be held on Tuesday. Biden and Sanders also questioned Buttigieg’s level of experience for the job of running the country.
“Mayor Pete is a great guy and a real patriot,” Biden said. “He has done some good things but he has not demonstrated that he has the ability to get broad support across the spectrum including African Americans and Latinos.”
Buttigieg turned the tables on Biden in an unexpected way with his eloquent response to the issue of political mudslinging and the Trump political machinations that led to the impeachment saga. Buttigieg condemned Trump’s partisan gamesmanship with Ukraine over his suggestion that the country mount an investigation into business activities in the country by Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, as a condition of receiving a promised U.S. military aid package.
“We’ve got draw a line here,” Buttigieg said. “To be the kind of president, to be the kind of human being who would seek to turn someone against his own son, who would seek to weaponize a son against his own father, is an unbelievably dishonorable thing that is just one more example of why we as a party have to be completely united in doing whatever it takes at the end of the day to make sure this president does not get a second term.”
When Biden pointed out that Trump would have a field day with skewering Sanders as a liberal extremist, Sanders told the crowd they should not fear the Democratic Socialist label if he secures the nomination. “Because Donald Trump lies all the time,” Sanders said.
Sanders and other candidates weighed in on the impeachment trial of Trump that ended this week in an acquittal in the Senate. Trump and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) warned that the president may well feel emboldened to act now that he has proven his bedrock of support among his GOP allies in Congress. He singled out Utah Senator Mitt Romney as the only Republican member of the Senate to vote in favor of impeachment.
“The saddest aspect of this whole thing is you have Republicans in the Senate who knew better. They knew that Donald Trump is a crook. They knew that Donald Trump is a cheat. But they didn’t have the guts, with the exception of Romney, to vote against him,” Sanders said.
Rounding out the stage with Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren were Andrew Yang, the New York entrepreneur whose signature message includes a pledge to give $1,000 to every American as an economic stimulus effort; and Tom Steyer, the businessman and philanthropist from California.
The running topic that produced some of the most impassioned statements during the three-hour debate hosted by ABC News and New Hampshire’s WMUR-TV was the urgent need to boot Trump out of the White House come November. Warren and Sanders in particular hammered the theme of the dangers that a post-acquittal Trump poses to Democrats’ policy agenda.
“The way we defeat Donald Trump and everybody up here, by the way is united, no matter who wins the damn thing we’re all going to stand together to defeat him,” Sanders said. “I believe that the way we beat Trump is by having the largest voter turnout in the history of this country, and that is appealing to working class people who have given up on the political process.”
Warren defended her stated intent to continue to investigate the activities of Trump and his associates since he took office in 2017. She positioned it as a matter of principle and precedent.
“I think no one is above the law, and that includes the president of the United States,” Warren said. “We watched on Wednesday as Republicans, all but one, locked arms to protect him from impeachment, but we need to reestablish the rule of law in this country.”
The contenders batted around a host of hot topics, from criminal justice reform and Medicare for all to global trade policy, abortion rights, child welfare and climate change, and each candidate sought angles on issues to burnish their own credentials.
Biden missed no opportunity to mention his accomplishments during President Barack Obama’s administration (“I busted my neck getting Obamacare passed,” he said) and before that, from domestic policy to international diplomacy to campaign finance reform. Sanders and Warren staked out appeals to working class voters by stressing economic proposals such as Warren’s “two-cent wealth tax” to fund the elimination of student debt obligations for some 43 million Americans.
“The way you bring people together is by ending the international disgrace of this country being the only major nation on Earth not to guarantee health care to all people as a human right,” Sanders said.
Klobuchar sold herself as a fresh face but one with experience in the business of governing.
“We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us,” he said. “I think having some experience is a good thing.” She also nodded to Buttigieg’s youthful advantage by noting that “my age, 59, is in the new 38 up here.”
Buttigieg, of course, staked out the “I’m the next generation” turf — because only he can. (And one point he observed “this is not an episode of ’24′” in discussing the use of military force to achieve counterterrorism objectives a la the recent assassination by the U.S. of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani.)
“We cannot solve the problems before us by looking back. We have to be ready to turn the page and change our politics before it’s too late,” he said. “And I’m seeing everywhere I go, not just fellow Democrats, but a striking number of independents and what I like to call future former Republicans ready to join in that historic American majority to turn the page.”
Yang, who has worked as an entrepreneur and executive in the health care and tech industries, was most effective in discussing economic policy and the unconventional solutions he sees to solve the problem of the wealth gap in the nation.
“The way forward is a new human-centered version of capitalism that actually uses the markets to improve our families’ lives,” he said.
Steyer injected the subject of race forcefully in the discussion as he asserted his support for the concept of the federal government paying reparations to descendants of slaves.
“I am the person on this stage who will say openly I’m for reparations. Something wrong happened. I am for reparations to African Americans in this country,” he said. “And anyone who thinks that racism is a thing of the past and not an ongoing problem is not dealing with reality.”
ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos and David Muir moderated the two and a half-hour event alongside ABC News Live anchor Linsey Davis, WMUR-TV political director Adam Sexton and WMUR anchor Monica Hernandez.