Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden and California...

Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris engage during the Democratic primary debate hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit on Wednesday. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Jim Watson

Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden returned to a familiar position at Wednesday night’s debate — center stage and fending off attacks from the crowded field of candidates looking to chip away at his lead.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who experienced a bump in support following her performance at last month’s first Democratic National Committee debate, also found herself on the defensive as Biden and other candidates criticized her recent “Medicare for All” health care plan at the top of Wednesday’s debate in Detroit.

While Wednesday’s debate focused heavily on health care, immigration, and matters of race, the debate took a local turn midway through the two-hour exchange, when the candidates — including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — were asked to weigh in on the Justice Department’s recent decision to not pursue civil rights charges against NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner of Staten Island. 

De Blasio, who has come under fire from Garner’s family and activists for not pushing for the termination of Pantaleo, said, “There is finally going to be justice in the next 30 days in New York,” when asked if he would fire the officer.

De Blasio blamed the Justice Department for a delays in rendering a decision on Pantaleo’s future. Garner died in 2014, after he was held by Pantaleo in a chokehold prohibited by the NYPD. The fatal arrest and Garner’s cries of “I can’t breathe,” were captured on video. Protesters interrupted several of the candidates on Wednesday with chants of “Fire Pantaleo.”

Gillibrand said Pantaleo should be “fired now,” adding, “If I was the mayor I would have fired him.”

Gillibrand and de Blasio — each polling under 1 percent and in dire need of a surge in support to qualify for the third debate in September — used their time on the debate stage to cast themselves as the champion of working families.

The debate also featured Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Cory Booker of New Jersey, former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Biden, bracing for a debate in which the other candidates were looking to cut into his polling lead, led his opening remarks by directly addressing Trump and his racially divisive rhetoric.

“Mr. President this is America,” Biden said, noting the diverse field of candidates on the stage. “We are strong and great because of this diversity. So Mr. President, let's get something straight. We love it, we are not leaving it, we’re here to stay, and we are certainly not going to leave it to you."

Biden defended his record as President Barack Obama’s vice president and his record on race. He argued that the Obama-era Affordable Care Act should be preserved amid calls by other candidates for a dramatically different “Medicare for All” program. Biden also stood by the Obama administration’s mass deportation efforts, which were criticized by some on the stage who proposed the decriminalization of illegal border crossings.

Castro, who has advocated for decriminalizing border crossings, to allow migrants to petition for asylum outside of traditional ports of entry, said doing  so would help prevent the separation of families at the border.

After Biden told Castro, he never raised any issues about the Obama Administration's efforts when he served in the Cabinet, Castro responded: "It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past, and one of us hasn't."

For the second straight night, the second of two Democratic debates held in Detroit focused heavily on health care policy. 

Harris’ recently released health care plan for "Medicare for all" stops short of the plan pushed by self-declared progressives Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts that calls for the elimination of private health care insurers. Biden, who previously said Harris’ plan was attempting to “have it every which way,” repeated his criticism.

“You can’t beat President Trump with double talk on this plan,” Biden said.

Harris said her plan “was responsive to the needs of the American people [and] American families” and she touted the endorsement of the plan by Obama’s former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

De Blasio took aim at front-runners Biden and Harris right out the gate, saying Biden “told wealthy donors that nothing fundamentally would change if he were president” and “Kamala Harris said she’s not trying to restructure society … well, I am.”

The two-term mayor, making a pitch to middle class voters, promised to “tax the hell out of the wealthy” to “even up the score.”

Gillibrand repeatedly listed her credentials on women’s issues, and touted her work on key bipartisan legislation that others had described as “impossible” to pass, including last week’s passage of a measure to permanently fund the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, to argue that she could beat Trump.

“Beating Donald Trump definitely is not impossible,” Gillibrand said.

In a moment that went viral on social media, and drew laughs from the crowd, Gillibrand said: "The first thing I'm going to do as president, is I am going to Clorox the Oval Office.”

Wednesday’s debate was the second of a two-night debate organized by the Democratic National Committee. Tuesday’s debate of 10 candidates pitted centrist Democrats against the liberal leaders of the party — Sanders and Warren — in a more than two-hour exchange that exposed the ideological rifts within the Democratic party. Both debates were widely framed by political analysts as an elimination round of sorts for the fledgling campaigns of those candidates who are trailing Biden by double-digit margins, and who are polling well below one percent in most national polls.

The DNC raised its eligibility criteria last month for candidates to qualify for a third debate in September. Under the new standards, which require at least 2 percent support in four national polls, and campaign contributions from 130,000 individuals, Gillibrand, de Blasio, Castro, Yang, Gabbard, Inslee and Bennet face the prospect of not qualifying based on their current national polling averages that fall at or below 1 percent.

Gillibrand and de Blasio both have an average of 0.5 percentage point of support, according to an analysis of recent national polls conducted by the website Real Clear Politics.

Gillibrand in the second half of the debate took direct aim at Biden, questioning his statements in a 1980s interview that appeared to be critical of women working outside of the home. 

Biden said his statements were taken out of context, that he was making the case that a proposed child care tax credit at the time should have been offered to poorer families, not wealthy families.

Biden noted that Gillibrand was previously one of his supporters as a lawmaker. “I don’t know what’s happened, except you’re now running for president,” he said.

De Blasio was also asked about his response to elevated levels of lead poisoning at the city’s public housing facilities. The question came as part of a two-part question on what he would do to eliminate lead contamination in water.

The mayor blamed federal funding cuts to the city’s housing program for the issues with lead, and argued “there should be a federal mandate" to eradicate lead poisoning in every city, including Flint, Michigan, which has grappled with elevated levels of lead in drinking water.

With Michael Gormley


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