The debates turned the page on the first chapter of the primary, which has already seen most of the two dozen candidates cycle through both early-voting states and less familiar stumping grounds as they try to carve out a connection with the diverse Democratic base. For the candidates seemingly moored to the lower tiers of early polling results, the large new audiences also presented an opportunity to introduce themselves — and their ideas — while launching tactical raids on some of the better-known contestants.
Their tussles further exposed divisions within the party, which have been litigated with increasing fervor since Trump’s election in November 2016, as a new generation of more progressive lawmakers and activists seek to either push the establishment left — or out of the picture entirely.
Debating on the first night, Warren aggressively made the case for the “big, structural change” she has promised throughout her nearly seven months on the stump. She also took the opportunity, during a standout moment, to close the gap with Sanders on his signature issue, “Medicare for All,” by clearly stating her willingness to eliminate the private insurance industry.
“Let us all be very clear about this,” Sanders said in a statement Friday, without naming names. “If you support Medicare for All, you have to be willing to end the greed of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries.”
‘Do your homework on this issue’
Immigration was top of mind for Democrats in Miami, in part because of the presence of a detention center for unaccompanied migrant children about an hour south in Homestead. Most of the candidates visited the makeshift protest encampment outside its fenced perimeter, with a number of them climbing stepladders to look in and wave into the distance at the child detainees.
“These were children who were being marched like little soldiers, like little prisoners, from one place to another,” Warren, who was the first to make the trip, told reporters on Wednesday morning. “This is not what we should be doing as a country.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota appeared at the same site hours later and over the next 48 hours the candidates seemed to arrive at the site in a constant rotation.
Harris takes on Biden
“Vice President Biden, I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris said on Thursday night, immediately silencing the debate stage as the weight of the moment became clear, “and I agree with you, when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I also believe — and it’s personal — it was actually hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”
Biden responded forcefully and unapologetically to Harris’ challenge. He accused her of “mischaracterizing” his record on busing and in a quick but sharp jab that channeled progressive criticism of the former San Francisco district attorney, pointed out that he had chosen to become a public defender earlier in his career — not, like Harris, a prosecutor.
Still, Harris emerged from her debate as a consensus winner, having put on display during a pivotal moment in her campaign all the traits that pundits and colleagues had figured would make her an estimable candidate. Voters noticed too and backed her during the debate with their pocketbooks, according to the campaign, giving individual online donations at 67% above the normal rate.
Race looms large at debates
Race also featured prominently in South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s debate strategy, though his goal was different: Defuse escalating tensions over his handling of the city’s police department. Those questions existed from early on in his campaign, but became inescapable after a member of the force, responding to reports of car robberies, shot an African American man allegedly in possession of a knife. The killing set off protests in South Bend, with African American residents and others criticizing Buttigieg’s oversight of the city’s law enforcement apparatus.
“Because I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg said, offering a contrite tone at a moment when the anger and pain in South Bend remain raw. But his admission did little to cut off criticism from Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, who argued that Buttigieg should have fired the police chief because the officer did not have his body camera turned on at the time of the incident, a breach of policy.
Swalwell spent much of his time onstage Thursday picking out opponents for what he hoped would be memorable lines of attack.
“I’m still holding on to that torch,” Biden said.
CNN’s Rebecca Buck, Dan Merica, Kyung Lah and Eric Bradner contributed to this report.