At Democratic debate, presidential contenders rebuke Donald Trump but vow not to be 'consumed' by him

The Democratic presidential candidates expressed uniform support on Wednesday night for the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump's conduct toward Ukraine, but signalled significant reservations in the fifth primary debate about the possibility that the 2020 campaign could become submerged in a congressional investigation of Trump's behaviour.

The debate in Atlanta began with few sparks between the leading candidates, but a barrage of fire directed at Trump and what the top Democrats described as a culture of corruption and self-dealing in his administration. That line of argument crossed ideological and cultural lines on the Democratic side, involving populist liberals like Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont and their more moderate competitors, including Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.

"We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump, because if we are, you know what? We’re going to lose the election," Sanders said, pointing to social problems like homelessness and climate change, which he termed "the great existential crisis of our time".

But the seeds of a larger debate over policy and political strategy became evident even in their answers targeting Trump. Sanders and Warren railed against corruption in Washington, while other candidates, including Buttigieg and former Vice-President Joe Biden, emphasised the importance of forging political unity and electing Democratic senators from red states.

Biden, who has staked his campaign on the perception that he is a strong General Election candidate, used his leadoff answer to urge Democratic voters to pick a nominee who can "go into states like Georgia and North Carolina and other places and get a Senate majority".

 At Democratic debate, presidential contenders rebuke Donald Trump but vow not to be consumed by him

The Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta on Wednesday night. By Ruth Fremson © 2019 The New York Times

It was, atypically, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, normally a nonconfrontational voice on the debate stage, who opened a more contentious phase of the debate, critiquing Warren's proposal for a tax on the nation's largest fortunes. "It's cumbersome," Booker jabbed. "It's been tried by other nations. It's hard to evaluate."

Buttigieg soon followed suit, though, arguing that most Americans were on their side — but warning that Democrats must "galvanise not polarise that majority".

Sanders made the case for his "Medicare for All" legislation and took an oblique shot at Warren, who has not prioritised the measure, noting that he would introduce his single-payer "in the first week" of his presidency.

But reflecting his de facto truce with Warren, Sanders reserved his sharpest words for the more moderate candidates who oppose Medicare for All, whom he did not name but whom he described as believing "that we should not take on the insurance industry, we should not take on the pharmaceutical industry".

The Democrats met just hours after the administration’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon D Sondland, offered perhaps the most damaging testimony against Trump yet in the House impeachment proceeding. The inquiry, centering on whether Trump linked US financial and political support for Ukraine to a promise to investigate Biden, has worried some Democrats about the former vice-president's viability in a General Election.

Yet that is only one factor that is making an already volatile race more fluid than ever.

Since the debate last month, former Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts has entered the primary contest, and former mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York has taken steps to do the same. They have been lured into the campaign in part over their concerns about the Leftward drift in the party, and also because there is still no clear front-runner with a little more than two months until the Iowa caucuses. It remains far from certain that they will be able to catch on so late in the race, but both have made clear that they are trying to win over more moderate voters.

If there is an opening for them, it is because Biden has not been able to consolidate support from Centre-Left Democrats. Voters and donors from this wing of the party are uneasy with him mainly because of his lacklustre fundraising and campaign performances, and less because of Trump's false claims that he acted improperly with Ukraine when his son Hunter was on the payroll of an energy company there.

More broadly, though, the race remains unsettled because Democratic voters are splintered across racial, ideological and generational lines. Buttigieg surged in Iowa and New Hampshire in recent weeks, taking the lead in a new Des Moines Register-CNN survey of Iowa caucusgoers. But he has not made similar gains beyond the two heavily white states that kick off the nominating process.

Biden is strong in Nevada, where Hispanic and Asian-American voters play a key role, and in South Carolina, where African-Americans are expected to make up a majority of the Democratic electorate.

The two leading populists in the field, Warren and Sanders, also are in the top tier in some early-state surveys thanks to strong support from self-identified liberals and many younger voters. But both have been unable to broaden their appeal to moderate Democrats. Together, these fractures have effectively created a four-way race, with none of the leading contenders yet proving they can break out of their demographic niche.

Warren had shown the most progress in expanding her coalition beyond white liberals, but she has endured a rocky stretch since coming under attack in the last debate over her failure to outline how she would pay for "Medicare for all".

Last week she sought to tamp down criticism by unveiling a proposal for how to pay for her single-payer plan. But that seemed only to tie her more closely to an issue — replacing the private health insurance with a government-run system — that many Democrats fear will hurt their chances in the General Election. Warren has seen her polling dip in the past month, most notably in Iowa, but she retains a committed bloc of supporters.

It is a coalition that could be even larger were it not for Sanders' revival. Polls show that many supporters of the two candidates view the other as their preferred second choice.

Sanders, 78, has gained strength in many surveys since having a heart attack last month. He has won the endorsement of three women of colour in Congress, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, with whom he recently campaigned across Iowa as he firmed up support with progressive voters.

However, no candidate may have gained more from Warren's struggles than Buttigieg, who was one of her most aggressive critics in the last debate.

Already a favorite of many in the Democratic donor class, whose support has allowed him to finance a well-funded advertising campaign, Buttigieg, 37, has gained support with a sharp pivot toward the political Centre. His run from the Left, where he positioned himself earlier in the race, has infuriated his rivals who view him as a politically-elastic opportunist. But before the debate on Wednesday, Buttigieg had yet to sustain any damaging attacks for his recalibration.

Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin c.2019 The New York Times Company

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Updated Date: Nov 21, 2019 09:50:00 IST