WASHINGTON — Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls, debating against the backdrop of ongoing impeachment inquiry hearings into President Donald Trump, condemned his actions as impeachable, before quickly pivoting to policy issues central to their bids.
The candidates — including former Vice President Joe Biden looking to preserve his overall national polling lead against a recent surge by fellow moderate Democrat Pete Buttigieg — took to the debate stage just an hour after the House Intelligence Committee wrapped up its latest daylong series of hearings into Trump’s dealings in Ukraine.
Massachusetts' Sen. Elizabeth Warren, fielding the first question of the night, said she supported impeaching Trump.
“We have to establish the principle that no one is above the law,” Warren said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont issued a warning to Democrats: “We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump. Because if we are … we're going to lose the election."
Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said Democrats had to focus on a post-Trump America.
"We are going to have to unify a nation that will be as divided as ever,” he said.
Biden said Trump’s unsuccessful effort to push Ukraine to open an investigation into his son Hunter proved Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s resistance to his candidacy.
The debate comes as Biden confronts multiple challenges to his campaign including a dip in recent state polls, a decline in fundraising, and most recently the prospect of two additional challengers vying to run in Biden’s centrist lane.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in recent weeks has taken steps to enter the presidential race as a Democrat, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has declared his candidacy.
The debate occurred with all the candidates looking to cement support ahead of the Iowa caucuses in three months. Among those Democrats who qualified for Wednesday’s debate, California's Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey's Sen. Cory Booker, Hawaii's Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, businessman Andrew Yang, billionaire activist Tom Steyer, Minnesota's Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg are all polling in the single digits, compared with Biden, Sanders and Warren, who have routinely been the top three candidates.
Biden has maintained an overall polling lead over the field of contenders, according to the latest analysis by the poll-tracking website RealClearPolitics, but Warren and Buttigieg have made inroads against Biden in recent early-voting states' polls.
As the debate turned to the issue of health care, Warren, whose "Medicare for All" proposal has been criticized as unrealistic and unpopular by several Democratic candidates, continued to defend the plan, saying on “Day One” she would fight to reduce prescription drug prices.
Biden argued there is not enough support among lawmakers, including congressional Democrats to pass a Medicare for All plan. He also argued that “the vast majority of Democrats do not support” the plan.
“We should build on Obamacare,” Biden said referring to the Affordable Care Act that was enacted under the Obama administration.
Biden’s campaign signaled hours before the debate it would take aim at Warren, accidentally firing off a post-debate campaign fundraising email that took a dig at Warren’s signature slogan of having “a plan for that.”
“We need more than plans,” the Biden campaign email stated.
As Bloomberg, a billionaire, weighs whether to enter the race, several candidates knocked the role of “big money” in politics.
Warren noted that U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland was offered his high-level position after contributing $1 million to Trump’s inauguration committee.
“Money buys its way into Washington,” Warren said. “Donors shouldn't think they get ambassadorships for checks.”
Klobuchar argued that “right now, we have a system that is not fair,” later noting the lengths she went to raise small-dollar donations in past races.
“My first Senate race, I literally called everyone I knew and I set what is still an all-time Senate record. I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends,” Klobuchar said jokingly.
Steyer, who entered the race after funding a national campaign aimed at impeaching Trump, defended his ability to self-finance his presidential bid, saying he was running as a reform-minded candidate who would push for congressional term limits.
Yang, defended Steyer, noting that he also spent money to fund anti-climate change initiatives.
“You can’t knock someone for having money and spending it in the right way,” Yang said.
Steyer quickly thanked Yang — the exchange underscoring the tone of the night, with the candidates largely steering away from pointed attacks that emerged during some of the past debates.
One of the most heated exchanges of the night came as Harris took aim at Gabbard for her previous criticisms of President Barack Obama during his time in office. Gabbard previously dismissed reports that her candidacy has been bolstered by online support from right-wing websites aligned mostly with Trump.
Gabbard insisted: “I'm running for president to be the Democratic nominee that rebuilds our Democratic Party.”
The debate took place in Atlanta. Georgia is a state Democrats are looking to flip in 2020 after Democrat Stacey Abrahams narrowly lost the 2018 gubernatorial race to Republican Brian Kemp. Democratic leaders have said they are looking to build on the record turnout from black, Latino and Asian voters in the state last year.
Biden continued to argue that Democrats should not only elect the candidate most likely to defeat Trump, but who could also compel voters to choose Democrats in state races.
“You have to ask yourself, up here, who is the most likely to be able to win the nomination in the first place, and secondly, who is most likely to increase” voter turnout, Biden said, later touting his polling lead among black voters.
During the second half of the debate, Buttigieg faced jabs about his level of experience and his struggle to gain support from black voters.
“Nobody on this stage should need a focus group to hear black voters,” Booker said.
Harris said, “For too long, candidates have taken for granted constituencies that have been the backbone of the Democratic Party and have overlooked those constituencies."
Buttigieg said: "I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters that don't yet know me."
Klobuchar, taking aim at the 37-year-old mayor, said: “He’s said the right words, but I actually have the experience.”
Buttigieg replied: "There's more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?"