Tuesday night’s Democratic debate was the first since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump and the first since Trump ordered the pulling back of U.S. troops in Syria.
It also was the first since Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts began pulling ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden in some national polls.
There was no shortage of highlights as a dozen Democratic candidates took the stage in Westerville, Ohio, for the fourth debate of the primary election. But here are the key take-aways:
Warren in the crosshairs
It was Warren and not Biden who was on the defensive against lower-polling rivals on the stage, an acknowledgment that she now is perceived as the Democrat to beat.
Moderate Democrats honed in on her support for Medicare for All — particularly how it will be funded.
“No plan has been laid out to explain how a multi-trillion dollar hole … is supposed to get filled in,” Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said.
“The difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something you can actually get done,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said.
Warren’s fellow progressive, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), stepped in to admit what she never did.
“I do think it’s appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up,” he said. “They will go up significantly for the wealthy.”
Warren continued to use “cost” as her metric, saying: “I will not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle-class families.”
Washington, D.C.-based Democratic consultant Brad Bannon said she should be more upfront.
“She comes across as being evasive,” he said. “Just admit taxes for middle-class families would go up slightly but her health care plan could save them thousands of dollars annually.”
Biden tries to pivot
Biden, during the summer debates, was forced to defend his political record: his statements and positions on race relations and former President Barack Obama’s deportation policy.
On Tuesday, he was forced to confront a more personal conflict: the work his son, Hunter, did for a Ukrainian energy company that had been investigated for corruption.
Hunter Biden served on the firm’s board at a time when his father, then the vice president, sought to withhold aid to Ukraine in exchange for the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor seen as turning a blind eye to corruption. Trump and his allies want the Bidens to be investigated, but there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
Asked Tuesday why it was OK for a family member to be involved in foreign business when he was vice president, Joe Biden began: “Look, my son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong.”
He then said Hunter Biden had spoken for himself and sought to redirect the focus to Trump: “What I think is important is we focus on why it’s so important to remove this man from office.”
Biden, in answering a second question about his son’s work overseas, said, “I never discussed a single thing with my son about anything having do with Ukraine”
But Hunter Biden in a New Yorker story from July said he spoke briefly with his father once about his involvement with the energy company. The son acknowledged the exchange again in an ABC interview earlier this week.
Meena Bose, a professor and executive dean at Hofstra University, said: “More details could be raised, but Biden and the other Democratic candidates are determined to keep the focus on the Trump impeachment inquiry.”
Foreign policy a focus
Tuesday night brought perhaps the most extensive discussion on foreign policy of all the debates. Biden’s surrogates have underscored that foreign policy is his forte and his expertise an asset at a time when Trump is steering the country toward isolationism.
Though he stumbled over sentences at several points during the debate, Biden was most forceful when it came to questions about Trump's removal of support for the U.S.'s Kurdish allies in Syria, now under attack by Turkey.
“We have an erratic, crazy president who knows not a damn thing about foreign policy and operates out of fear for his own reelection,” Biden said.
Bannon said: “He undercuts himself by misspeaking and having to say, ‘Excuse me.' But he played to his strength in foreign policy and shined in the discussion about Syria.”
The topic of conflict in Syria sparked a confrontation between Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, the two U.S. military veterans on the stage.
Gabbard met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2017 and previously supported the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. On Tuesday, she criticized Trump’s approach, but said that while he has “the blood of the Kurds on his hands … so do many of the politicians in both parties who supported this regime change war.”
Buttigieg took issue with her position, calling the "slaughter" of the Kurdish Syrians "a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values."