HOUSTON, TX. (WLNS/MLive/AP) – The candidates are expected to deliver contrasting visions for where the Democratic Party should head in the future. During July’s DNC debate in Detroit, Warren and Sanders called for sweeping progressive proposals that drew criticism from moderates seeking the Democratic nomination.
Midwest issues were scarcely highlighted during the Detroit debate. Democrats are expected to focus on immigration and gun control, two critical issues for Texas voters rocked by recent mass shootings and a humanitarian crisis on the southern border.
The debate ended at 10:45 p.m.
10:35 p.m. – Buttigieg shares his decision to come out as gay
Toward the tail end of the debate, Democrats were asked to share their greatest professional setback.
Buttigieg talked about serving in the military under “don’t ask don’t tell,” the long-standing policy that prevented gay service members from being open about their sexuality. The South Bend, Ind. mayor is the first openly gay candidate to mount a major campaign for president.
“I came back from deployment and realized that you only get to live one life and I was not interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer, so I just came out,” Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg said he was nervous about the decision, especially considering he was seeking reelection in South Bend. But voters ultimately didn’t see it as an issue.
Buttigieg is married to Chasten Glezman, a school teacher from Traverse City. Chasten visited Saugatuck to fundraise for Buttigieg earlier this year.
10:30 p.m. – Protesters disrupt debate
Protesters briefly disrupted the debate while Biden was asked to state his biggest professional setback. The hecklers were quickly removed from the venue.
It was difficult to hear what the protesters were saying, though they were loud enough to cause Biden to pause while they were ejected.
10 p.m. – Climate change gets the spotlight
Environmentalists have been pushing the DNC to make its primary candidates have a more robust discussion on climate change. The issue had its moment more than two hours into the debate Thursday.
Democrats pledged to carry forward ambitious proposals championed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who made climate action the central promise of his failed presidential bid.
Warren said one of the biggest barriers to progress is corporate interference. She said large companies have blocked meaningful policies from being adopted.
Democrats running for president largely agree that climate change is an impending disaster, using terminology like “global emergency,” and “existential threat” in their environmental agendas. Their deadlines for reducing fossil fuel emissions and creating a carbon-neutral economy aim to hit a 2050 target set by climate scientists.
Their aggressive plans call for investments ranging from $1 trillion to $16 trillion, which Democrats said is necessary to prevent greater financial impact from future climate disasters.
9:50 p.m. – Biden says he regrets authorizing force in Iraq
Biden said he made a mistake by voting to support the use of military force against Iraq in 2002.
Sanders said he never believed the Bush administration’s justifications for the war. Sanders voted against the war in Iraq, a key distinction he has tried to highlight on the campaign trail.
Buttigieg, a veteran of wars in the Middle East, said it’s time to end the “endless wars.” He proposed creating a three-year sunset on any use of force authorization approved by Congress.
9:30 p.m. – Democrats talk trade and Trump strategy
Democrats slammed Trump’s tariffs for costing American consumers money, saying the would work to quickly remove them while changing course on the president’s ongoing trade war with China.
“President Trump has pursued an arbitrary and haphazard trade policy,” Yang said.
Klobuchar said Trump’s trade war has cost 300,000 American jobs.
O’Rourke and Biden said America is going it alone, isolating the U.S. while it takes on China.
9 p.m. – Hell yeah, we’re going to take your AR-15
O’Rourke defended his plan to impose a mandatory government buyback of every assault weapon in the United States. The El Paso native briefly suspended his campaign after a mass shooting rocked his hometown, and reemerged with a strong stance against gun violence.
“Hell yeah, we’re going to take your AR-15,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke has been blunt about the need to take powerful weapons off the streets. A shirt went on sale recently on O’Rourke’s website reading “This is f****ed up.”
8:45 p.m. – Democrats pin blame for white supremacist violence on Trump
O’Rourke has revamped his campaign after a racially-motivated shooter killed more than 20 people in El Paso, his hometown. The shooter released a manifesto which stated he wanted to prevent an “invasion” of immigrants from flooding the U.S.
O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman, directly called Trump a white supremacist and said he inspires violence. He said the shooter was “inspired to kill by our president.”
Castro also piled on, saying Democrats need to “get the white supremacist out of the White House.”
“A white supremacist drove 10 hours to shoot people that look like me and look like my family,” Castro said. “We have to root out white supremacy.”
Harris said Trump didn’t pull the trigger but is “tweeting out the ammunition.”
8:38 p.m. – Castro says Biden isn’t fulfilling Obama’s legacy
Castro lectured Biden on his former running mate, saying former President Barack Obama didn’t want to leave anyone without health insurance.
“I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama and you’re not,” Castro said.
The remark caused Buttigieg to lament how the Democratic primary debates encourage candidates to take pot shots and count their zingers. Buttigieg said the debates are “unwatchable” because people don’t want to watch candidates bicker with each other.
“That’s called an election,” Castro said. “That’s why we’re here.”
8:20 p.m. – Health care pegged as the top issue
The first question of the night went to Biden, who was asked if Sanders and Warren are going too far by proposing a single-payer government run health care system that would end the private insurance market.
Health care dominated the opening of the debate, with candidates either arguing to beef up access to coverage though the existing system or adopting a new single-payer government-run system.
Biden said it’s up for American voters to decide, but aligned himself with former President Barack Obama. Biden wants to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature policy victory.
Sanders said Medicare-for-All is the most cost-effective approach to fix issues with the American health care system. He and Warren said their plans, which share many similarities, would bring down the price of prescription drugs and lower costs overall for middle class families.
Klobuchar said union workers would lose their hard-fought health insurance plans if private insurance markets are eliminated. Unions are a key constituency for Democrats seeking the nomination, particularly in Midwest states like Michigan.
8:05 p.m. – Julian Castro makes the first Michigan reference
The former Housing and Urban Development secretary was the first candidate to deliver opening remarks at the debate. Castro also made the first reference to Michigan, saying he can flip states won by Trump in 2016.
7:50 p.m. – Democrats take the debate stage
The top 10 candidates in the Democratic primary took the stage, pitting all of the front-runners against each other for the first time. Another 10 candidates did not meet the debate threshold but haven’t suspended their campaigns.
Candidates participating in the debate include: Former Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
5:30 p.m. – Michigan lawmakers endorse Joe Biden
Four African American Democratic legislators representing Detroit endorsed Biden hours before the debate.
State Sen. Marshall Bullock, and state Reps. Joe Tate, Karen Whitsett and Tenisha Yancey, endorsed the former vice president, according to the campaign. The Biden camp touted new endorsements from 59 black legislators from 15 states.
“We are building a diverse coalition to create a path to the nomination that runs through the early states, Super Tuesday, and beyond.” said Campaign Manager Greg Schultz. “The endorsements of local elected officials who are committed to getting things done for their communities are imperative in our campaign’s fight for the soul of America and to defeat Donald Trump.”
5:00 p.m. – Debate Preview
Despite the miles traveled, the tens of millions of dollars raised and the ceaseless churn of policy papers, the Democratic primary has been remarkably static for months with Joe Biden leading in polls and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders vying to be the progressive alternative. That stability is under threat on Thursday.
All of the top presidential candidates will share a debate stage, a setting that could make it harder to avoid skirmishes among the early front-runners. The other seven candidates, meanwhile, are under growing pressure to prove they’re still in the race to take on President Donald Trump next November.
The debate in Houston comes at a pivotal point as many voters move past their summer vacations and start to pay closer attention to the campaign. With the audience getting bigger, the ranks of candidates shrinking and first votes approaching in five months, the stakes are rising.
“For a complete junkie or someone in the business, you already have an impression of everyone,” said Howard Dean, who ran for president in 2004 and later chaired the Democratic National Committee. “But now you are going to see increasing scrutiny with other people coming in to take a closer look.”
The debate will air on a broadcast network with a post-Labor Day uptick in interest in the race, almost certainly giving the candidates their largest single audience yet. It’s also the first debate of the 2020 cycle that’s confined to one night after several candidates dropped out and others failed to meet new qualification standards.
If nothing else, viewers will see the diversity of the modern Democratic Party. The debate, held on the campus of historically black Texas Southern University, features several women, people of color and a gay man, a striking contrast from the increasingly white and male Republican Party. It will unfold in a rapidly changing state that Democrats hope to eventually bring into their column.
Perhaps the biggest question is how directly the candidates will attack one another. Some fights that were predicted in previous debates failed to materialize with candidates like Sanders and Warren in July joining forces to take on their rivals.
The White House hopefuls and their campaigns are sending mixed messages about how eager they are to make frontal attacks on anyone other than President Donald Trump. That could mean the first meeting between Warren, the rising progressive calling for “big, structural change,” and Biden, the more cautious but still ambitious establishmentarian, doesn’t define the night. Or that Kamala Harris, the California senator, and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, look to reclaim lost momentum not by punching upward but by reemphasizing their own visions for America.
Biden, who has led most national and early state polls since he joined the field in April, is downplaying the prospects of a titanic clash with Warren, despite their well-established policy differences on health care, taxes and financial regulation.
“I’m just going to be me, and she’ll be her, and let people make their judgments. I have great respect for her,” Biden said recently as he campaigned in South Carolina.
Warren says consistently that she has no interest in going after Democratic opponents.
Yet both campaigns are also clear that they don’t consider it a personal attack to draw sharp policy contrasts. Warren, who as a Harvard law professor once challenged then-Sen. Biden in a Capitol Hill hearing on bankruptcy law, has noted repeatedly that they have sharply diverging viewpoints. Her standard campaign pitch doesn’t mention Biden but is built around a plea that the “time for small ideas is over,” an implicit criticism of more moderate Democrats who want, for example, a public option health care plan instead of single-payer or who want to repeal Trump’s 2017 tax cuts but not necessarily raise taxes further.
Biden, likewise, doesn’t often mention Warren or Sanders. But he regularly contrasts the price tag of his public option insurance proposal to the single-payer system that Warren and Sanders back. The former vice president, his aides say, is willing to have discussion over health care, including with Warren.
Ahead of the debate, the Biden campaign also emphasized that he’s released more than two decades of tax returns, in contrast to the president. That’s a longer period than Warren, and it could reach back into part of her pre-Senate career when she did legal work that included some corporate law.
Biden’s campaign won’t say that he’d initiate any look that far back into Warren’s past, but in July, Biden was ready throughout the debate with specific counters for rivals who brought up weak spots in his record.
There are indirect avenues to chipping away at Biden’s advantages, said Democratic consultant Karen Finney, who advised Hillary Clinton in 2016. Finney noted Biden’s consistent polling advantages on the question of which Democrat can defeat Trump.
A Washington Post-ABC poll this week found that among Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, Biden garnered 29% support overall. Meanwhile, 45% thought he had the best chance to beat Trump, even though just 24% identified him as the “best president for the country” among the primary field.
“That puts pressure on the others to explain how they can beat Trump,” Finney said.
Voters, Finney said, “want to see presidents on that stage,” and Biden, as a known quantity, already reaches the threshold. “If you’re going to beat him, you have to make your case.”
Some candidates say that’s their preferred path.
Harris, said spokesman Ian Sams, will “make the connection between (Trump’s) hatred and division and our inability to get things done for the country.”
Buttigieg, meanwhile, will have an opportunity to use his argument for generational change as an indirect attack on the top tier. The mayor is 37. Biden, Sanders and Warren are 76, 78 and 70, respectively — hardly a contrast to the 73-year-old Trump.
There’s also potential home state drama with two Texans in the race. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Obama housing secretary Julian Castro clashed in an earlier debate over immigration. Castro has led the left flank on the issue with a proposal to decriminalize border crossings.
For O’Rourke, it will be the first debate since a massacre in his hometown of El Paso prompted him to overhaul his campaign into a forceful call for sweeping gun restrictions, complete with regular use of the F-word in cable television interviews.
O’Rourke has given no indication of whether he’ll bring the rhetorical flourish to broadcast television.