Democratic debate: Candidates clash over electability in struggle to oust Trump

The Democrats’ top presidential contenders clashed over health care, experience and electability in a fiery debate Friday night as the 2020 primary season roared into a critical new phase.

Consequential debate

Friday marked the eighth and perhaps most consequential debate in the Democratic Party’s yearlong quest for a presidential nominee. The prime-time affair came just four days after Iowa’s chaotic caucuses -- and four days before New Hampshire’s primary -- with several candidates suddenly facing pointed questions about their political survival.

The debate tested the strength of the Democrats’ new front-runners, Sanders and Buttigieg, who emerged from Iowa on top but walked into New Hampshire with liabilities that their Democratic rivals fought to exploit.

With the stakes rising by the day and money rapidly drying up, Biden, Warren and Amy Klobuchar were also fighting to prove to voters and donors alike that a legitimate path to the presidency remained.

Size of the Supreme Court

The Democratic presidential candidates at Friday's debate agreed that they’d appoint Supreme Court justices who’d uphold the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, but there are distinctions on whether to try to expand the size of the court.

Pete Buttigieg wants to expand the court through a constitutional amendment while also changing the way justices are selected. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, disputed that his idea amounts to packing the court.

But former Vice President Joe Biden said any plan to expand the court is a bad idea. Biden noted that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg holds the same position.

Biden and billionaire businessman Tom Steyer said the argument over the court shows how important it is for Democrats to win enough Senate seats to retake a majority.

Biden argued that he’s the only Democratic candidate who’d have a coattail effect for Senate candidates in battleground states and GOP-leaning states like North Carolina and Georgia.

Sanders’ status as ‘democratic socialist’

Biden predicted he could “take a hit” in New Hampshire’s next-up primary election after a weak showing in Iowa. But he also raised questions about leading rival Sanders’ status as a democratic socialist and warned Democratic voters that President Donald Trump and his allies would use the socialism label against Sanders and the party in congressional elections as well as the presidential voting.

“Bernie’s labeled himself, not me, a democratic socialist,” Biden said before acknowledging his own political challenges. “I took a hit in Iowa and I’ll probably take a hit here."

Sanders brushed off concerns about Trump's attacks: “Donald Trump lies all the time," he said.

Troops in the Middle East

Biden cautioned against pulling American troops entirely out of Afghanistan, saying such actions can lead to regional instability. He recalled the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, saying troops were "ashamed" to leave while the Kurds asked Americans to stay.

Biden was responding to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's remark that "it's time to bring our troops home" from Afghanistan, a position she has voiced in previous debates.

Warren reaffirmed her recent comments about what she sees as a lack of a clear plan for withdrawal, noting she would listen to generals as the nation's commander in chief but would seek to “work with our allies in managing terrorism.”

Noting her service on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Warren said she has visited combat zones with Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and the late Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Biden, a former Delaware senator and vice president, took criticism from several rivals over his vote to authorize the invasion and said he made the mistake of believing the Bush administration that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Sanders, a Vermont senator, agreed, saying of Bush administration officials, “Like Joe and others, I also heard the arguments." But he added, "I concluded that they were lying through their teeth.”Sanders voted against the invasion of Iraq. Biden voted for it.

Biden’s nod to ousted Lt. Col. Vindman

Biden also encouraged the crowd at Friday’s debate to give a standing ovation to Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman after Trump ousted him in retribution for his testimony during House impeachment proceedings.

He declared that Trump “should be pinning a medal on Vindman, not Rush Limbaugh,” the far-right radio personality with whom Trump awarded the Medal of Freedom on Tuesday.

The ovation for Vindman punctuated a discussion that started with mention of Trump’s efforts to have Biden and his son Hunter investigated by Ukraine officials. That move was the crux of the impeachment case against Trump.

Buttigieg defended the Bidens.

“We are not going to let them change the subject," he said. "This is not about Vice President Biden or Hunter Biden. This is about abuse of power by the president.”

Klobuchar takes aim at Buttigieg

Klobuchar was among the underdog candidates who took aim at Buttigieg, lashing out at the millennial mayor for saying in his stump speech that the impeachment proceedings were "exhausting" and that he'd rather watch cartoons.

She took Buttigieg to task for his mockery of the Senate impeachment proceedings.

"It is easy to go after Washington. It is much harder to lead and much harder to take those difficult positions," she said.

She also accused Buttigieg of attacking Washington “because it's popular to say and makes you look like a cool newcomer.”

Klobuchar noted the “courageous” votes of Democratic Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and Republican Utah Sen. Mitt Romney. Both men voted to convict Trump — Romney on one count — and remove him from office.

In her sharpest blow, Klobuchar implicitly compared Buttigieg’s argument to the man Democrats hope to topple in November.

“We have a newcomer in the White House now, and look where it got us,” she said. “I think having some experience is a good thing.”

If elected, Buttigieg would be the youngest president ever elected and he has never served in elected office beyond the mayor's office in South Bend, Indiana.

But he used experience as a weapon against Biden, a two-term vice president who has spent most of his adult life in Washington.

“I'm interested in the style of the politics we need to put forward to actually finally turn the page," Buttigieg said. “Turn the page.”

Biden was then on the defensive: “The politics of the past I think were not all that bad,” he said. “I don’t know what about the past about Barack Obama and Joe Biden was so bad.”

Yang blames automation

Andrew Yang, a tech entrepreneur, said Democrats are making a mistake when they act like Trump is “the cause of all our problems.”

Yang said during the Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire on Friday night that Trump is “a symptom of a disease that has been building up in our communities for years and decades.”

Yang says Democrats need to instead work on “treating the disease” by tackling issues such as automation of jobs and corporations like Amazon that have avoided paying federal income tax.

He pointed to swing states like Iowa and Ohio that Trump captured in 2016, saying, “These communities are seeing their way of live get blasted into smithereens.”

Steyer calls on Biden

Steyer has twice openly called on Biden to publicly disavow a top surrogate's comments that Steyer characterized as "openly racist."

The billionaire climate activist made the request during Friday night's debate in New Hampshire. He was referencing comments earlier in the week, when a South Carolina state senator tweeted that the chair of South Carolina's Legislative Black Caucus — who has endorsed Steyer and works for him as an adviser — had received "almost $50,000" from Steyer's campaign.

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian also called Steyer "Mr. Money Bags," seemingly implying the lawmaker's support had been bought.

Biden replied that he believed Harpootlian was sorry for the comment while noting he has "more support in South Carolina in the Black Caucus" than others in the field.

The competition is fierce for South Carolina's black voters, who comprise most of the Democratic primary electorate in the state.

Bloomberg gets mentions

Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg remains a major unknown in the primary math, skipping debates and the first four states' elections while flooding the airwaves with hundreds of millions of dollars in ads and picking up significant endorsements. He's focusing on the big basket of Super Tuesday primaries.

Although Bloomberg didn’t qualify for the Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire, it didn’t always feel that way.

The candidates on stage Friday night were asked several times about the former mayor of New York City.

Warren responded, “I don’t think anyone ought to be able to buy their way into the nomination or to be president of the United States.” She also said candidates shouldn’t “suck up to billionaires to do it.”That was a swipe at Biden and Buttigieg, who have relied on large donors to finance their campaigns.

Sanders singled out Buttigieg specifically, saying, “I don’t have 40 billionaires, Pete, contributing to my campaign.”New debate rules set by the Democratic National Committee may see Bloomberg qualify for future debates.

Debate subplots

Beyond Biden's struggles, there were several subplots to watch.

The debate was the first since a progressives feud erupted on national television between Sanders and Warren. The Massachusetts senator refused to shake her New England neighbor's hand and accused him of calling her a liar moments after the Jan. 14 meeting in Iowa. The pointed exchange threatened to cause a permanent fissure in the Democratic Party's far-left flank.

Warren also has embraced her gender as a political strength in the weeks since, highlighting the successes of female candidates in the Trump era and her own record of defeating a male Republican to earn a seat in the Senate.

That said, she stressed unity at campaign stops in recent days: “We've got to pull together as a party. We cannot repeat 2016," she said this week in New Hampshire.

Yet Warren has been willing to attack before. Aside from the post-debate skirmish with Sanders, she seized on Buttigieg's fundraising practices in past meetings.

While Warren and Sanders as presidential candidates have sworn off wealthy donors, Buttigieg and the rest of the field have continued to hold private finance events with big donors, some with connections to Wall Street. In fact, Buttigieg took the unusual step of leaving New Hampshire this week to hold three fundraisers with wealthy donors in the New York area.

Looking ahead to New Hampshire

The rapidly changing dynamic meant that the candidates had great incentive to mix it up in the debate hosted by ABC. With the next debate nearly two weeks away, they might not get another chance.

Traditionally, the knives come out during this phase in the presidential primary process.

It was the pre-New Hampshire debate four years ago on the Republican side when then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie devastated Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential ambitions with a well-timed take-down. Rubio never recovered, making it easier for Donald Trump to emerge as his party's presidential nominee.

The stakes were particularly high for Biden, who has played front-runner in virtually every one of the previous seven debates but left Iowa in a distant fourth place. While reporting problems have blunted the impact of the Iowa contest, Biden's weakness rattled supporters who encouraged him to take an aggressive tack Friday night.

The seven-person field also highlighted the evolution of the Democrats' 2020 nomination fight, which began with more than two dozen candidates and has been effectively whittled down to a handful of top-tier contenders.

There are clear dividing lines based on ideology, age and gender. But just one of the candidates on stage, Yang, was an ethnic minority.