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The Democratic Debate Live: Candidates Take Questions on Race Issues

Moderators: Rachel Maddow, Andrea Mitchell, Kristen Welker and Ashley Parker.

Candidates: Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Kamala Harris, the entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Cory Booker, Representative Tulsi Gabbard and the billionaire Tom Steyer.

Mr. Biden, speaking about his ability to rebuild the broad coalition of voters that supported President Barack Obama, misspoke as he said that he had been endorsed by the “only” black woman to be elected to the Senate.

Ms. Harris, standing two podiums away, begged to differ, throwing up her hands and laughing.

Mr. Biden quickly corrected himself, noting that he had been endorsed by the “first” black woman to be elected to the Senate, Carol Moseley Braun.

It took almost two hours but Mr. Biden’s recent remark that he was not sure if marijuana was a “gateway drug” came up — and Mr. Booker delivered one of the evening’s most memorable lines.

“This week I heard him literally say I don’t think we should legalize marijuana,” Mr. Booker said. “I thought you might have been high when you said it.”(It was reminiscent of a line from the debate in July when Mr. Booker turned to Mr. Biden and said, “Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community. You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.”)

The context of Mr. Booker’s “high” comment came as he said that black voters were “pissed off” and said it was imperative for the party to nominate someone who can rally black voters.

“We need to have someone that can inspire, as Kamala said, to inspire African-American voters to the polls in record numbers,” Mr. Biden said, adding that he was that candidate, leaning on his two terms as Barack Obama’s vice president. “They know me,” he said, pointing to the polls.

Mr. Buttigieg, who has failed to attract significant support from black voters, said he agrees Democrats need to focus on black voters and is ready to try.

“I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don’t yet know me,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “As mayor of a city that is racially diverse and largely low income, for eight years I have lived and breathed the successes and struggles of a community where far too many people live with the consequences of racial inequity that has built-up over centuries but been compounded by policies and decisions from within living memory.”

Then, the twist.

Mr. Buttigieg sought to compare the experience of African-Americans feeling “excluded, marginalized and cast aside and oppressed” to his own experience as a gay man.

“I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country,” he said. “Turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate, and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me, working side by side shoulder to shoulder, making it possible for me to be standing here wearing this wedding ring in a way that couldn’t have happened two elections ago lets me know just how deep my obligation is to help those whose rights are on the line every day, even if they are nothing like me in their experience.”

More than 90 minutes into the debate, Ms. Harris leaned into her identity as the sole black woman onstage as she made the case that the nominee must connect with and represent the diversity of America.

“The larger issue is that for too long I think candidates have taken for granted the constituencies that have been the backbone of the Democratic Party and have overlooked those constituencies,” she said. “And they show up when it’s, you know, close to election time and show up in a black church and want to get the vote, but just haven’t been there before.”

She said that while many applaud the role of black women in the party, that is not enough.

“At some point folks get tired of just saying ‘oh, thank me for showing up’ and say, ‘well, show up for me,’” Ms. Harris said.

Cast initially in the race as a potential inheritor of the Obama coalition, she made the case explicitly: “We have got to recreate the Obama coalition to win.”

Mr. Sanders doesn’t miss a chance to draw distinctions with the Democratic establishment.

Asked if he’d “cut a deal” with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan, Mr. Sanders instead took an unprovoked shot at Mr. Biden.

“Well, let me just say this,” Mr. Sanders said. “One of the big differences between the vice president and myself is he supported the terrible war in Iraq, and I helped lead the opposition against it. And not only that I voted against the very first Gulf War, as well.”

Mr. Sanders went on to say that he would aim to bring American troops home from overseas wars, but would not “do it through a tweet at three o’clock in the morning,” like President Trump does.

Mr. Biden was not asked to respond.

Democrats continued to pile onto Mr. Trump — instead of one another — when the debate turned to foreign policy.

Ms. Harris started it, going on North Korea when she declared, “Donald Trump got punked.” She added that Mr. Trump has a “very fragile ego” and that he had walked away from key international accords, including the Paris climate deal and the Iran nuclear deal.

“One of the most important responsibilities of the commander-in-chief is to concern herself with the security of our nation and homeland,” she said to audible cheers.

On North Korea specifically, she said Mr. Trump “has traded a photo op for nothing.”

Mr. Biden agreed: “He has given North Korea everything they wanted.”

After several debates where climate change received little attention, the moderator Rachel Maddow asked Ms. Gabbard what she’d do about climate change, and Ms. Gabbard did what she does and blamed “hyper-partisanship” for blocking progress on environmental protection that most of the Democratic Party blames on Republicans.

Then Ms. Maddow kicked it to Mr. Steyer, who said he’s the only candidate for whom climate is his top priority. “I would make this the number one priority,” he said. “Vice President Biden won’t do it.”

Mr. Biden, seemed surprised to be on the end of an unprovoked attack from Mr. Steyer, yet he had an attack prepared.

“I don’t really need a kind of lecture from my friend,” Mr. Biden said, in what may have been the first attack on Mr. Steyer during the 2020 campaign. “While I was passing a first climate change bill and was in fact a game changer, while I managed the $90 billion recovery plan investing more money in infrastructure that related to clean energy than any time we’ve ever done it, my friend was introducing more coal mines and produced more coal around the world, according to the press, than all of Great Britain produces.”

After months of fierce disagreements, sharp attacks and pointed rebuttals, the first half of the fifth Democratic debate on Wednesday was the most agreeable one yet. And it was not just Mr. Booker talking love.

For all of the hints before the debate about attacks on Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren, most candidates delivered their lines, even their direct confrontations, wrapped in velvet — that is, when they weren’t just rattling off long segments from their stump speeches or taking whacks at Mr. Trump.

When Mr. Biden said that he would not, as president, direct his Justice Department to investigate a former President Trump, Mr. Sanders came in — to agree.

“I think Joe is right,” Mr. Sanders said.

Mr. Booker, whose campaign is in the most risk of missing the next debate of those onstage, did confront Ms. Warren over her wealth tax. But he did so quite politely. He said it was “cumbersome.”

After Mr. Steyer was asked if he was the “embodiment” of a special interest because of the hundreds of millions of dollars he spent, he was not attacked by those onstage who have run by railing against billionaires. He was defended by Mr. Yang.

“I just want to stick up for Tom,” Mr. Yang said, adding. “You can’t knock someone for having money and spending it in the right way.

Mr. Steyer seemed as surprised as he was pleased. “Thanks, Andrew,” he replied.

The fiercest clash in the first hour came far from the center of the stage, between Ms. Gabbard and Ms. Harris, who accused the Hawaii congresswoman of having “buddied up to Steve Bannon to get a meeting with Donald Trump” and going on Fox News to attack Democrats.

Ms. Gabbard replied, “What Senator Harris is doing is continuing to traffic in lies, smears and innuendo.”

Soon, though, it was back to civility.

Ms. Klobuchar turned a question about paid family leave — she’s for three months — into an attack on the party’s liberal front-runners, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders.

Ms. Klobuchar said she’d “love to do more” than three months paid leave, but said she would not make promises that could not be kept.

“I’m not going to go for things just because they sound good on a bumper sticker and then throw in a free car,” Ms, Klobuchar said. “We have an obligation as party to, yes, be fiscally responsible, yes, think big, but be honest.”

The jabs at the party’s left wing — Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders have proposed far greater spending and tax increases than Ms. Klobuchar — have become standard in the Minnesota senator’s remarks on the campaign trail as she jockeys for position with Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Biden in the Democrats’ moderate wing.

The moderator Andrea Mitchell asked Mr. Buttigieg the question his rivals have been muttering to reporters for weeks: Why should a guy who won 8,500 votes in his last race and lost a statewide race by 25 percentage points lead the party when it will need tens of millions of votes to defeat President Trump?

Mr. Buttigieg, who has faced a version of this question repeatedly from reporters and early-voting state Democrats on the campaign trail, delivered what has become his standard response: It’s not about what he’s done in the past, but what he would do as president.

“I have the right experience to take on Donald Trump,” he said. “I get it’s not traditional establishment Washington experience, but I would argue we need something very different right now.”

Mr. Buttigieg pivoted his Midwestern sensibility, saying the country needs someone who “comes from the kinds of communities that he’s been appealing to,” an unsubtle reference to the white working-class voters Mr. Buttigieg hopes to win over.

Ms. Klobuchar rattled off one of her favorite jokes from the campaign: just how much money she raised from her exes.

“My first Senate race, I literally called everyone I knew and I set what is still an all-time Senate record. I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends,” she said.

Ms. Klobuchar used humor a few moments later when asked about her recent comments about Mr. Buttigieg, whom she said would not be getting as serious consideration, based on his resume, if he were a woman.

Ms. Klobuchar began by saying Mr. Buttigieg deserves his spot on stage but said women are treated differently.

“Otherwise we could play a game called name your favorite woman president,” she said to laughs.

She had one more humor-infused line up her sleeve. “If you think a woman can’t beat Trump,” she said, “Nancy Pelosi does it every day.”

Ms. Gabbard’s first moment in Wednesday’s debate did not disappoint. She launched a broadside against Hillary Clinton, tying her to President George W. Bush and Donald Trump as military adventurists.

Ms. Gabbard called for “an end to this ongoing Bush, Clinton, Trump foreign policy doctrine of regime change wars, overthrowing dictators in other countries. Needlessly sending my brothers and sisters in uniform into harm’s way to fight in wars that actually undermine our national security and have cost us thousands of American lives.”

For some reason, the moderators asked Ms. Harris to respond.

And respond she did, voicing grievances about Ms. Gabbard Democrats across the party’s spectrum have been muttering for months: that she’s a closet Republican, a regular Fox News panelist who pals around the war criminals and loves nothing more than attacking the Democratic Party she aims to lead.

“I think that it’s unfortunate that we have someone on this stage who is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, who during the Obama administration spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama,” Ms. Harris said. “When Donald Trump was elected, not even sworn in, buddied up to Steve Bannon to get a meeting with Donald Trump in the Trump Tower, fails to call a war criminal by what he is, as a war criminal. And then spends full time during the course of this campaign, again, criticizing the Democratic Party.”

Ms. Gabbard declined to engage in the attacks on her.

“What Senator Harris is doing is continuing to traffic in lies, smears and innuendo,” she said.

Declaring, again, that he “wrote the damn bill,” Mr. Sanders tried to steer the debate conversation to “Medicare for all,” promising he would pursue the legislation in his first week. That represented an unstated contrast with Ms. Warren, who has said she would pursue a public option first, delaying Medicare for all until year three of her administration.

“Some of the people up here think we would not take on the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry,” Mr. Sanders said.

Mr. Biden said, accurately, that Medicare for all does not have the votes to pass the House or Senate, even among Democrats.

“Nancy Pelosi is one of those people,” Mr. Biden said of skeptics of the plan. “I trust the American people to make a judgment,” about choosing either private insurance or Medicare.

“My friends say you have to only go Medicare for all,” he added.

Mr. Buttigieg is the first candidate to invoke former President Barack Obama, saying that Democrats need to avoid alienating Republicans and center-right voters with massive social programs like Medicare for all.

“As President Obama commented recently, we are now in a different reality that we were even 12 years ago,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “And to me the extraordinary potential of the moment we’re in right now is that there is an American majority that stands ready to tackle big issues, that didn’t exist in the same way even a few years ago.”

“Even on issues where Democrats have been on defense, like immigration and guns, we have a majority to do the right thing,” he said. “If we can galvanize, not polarize that majority.”

That last line came as a clear shot at Ms. Warren, who has emerged as Mr. Buttigieg’s chief sparring partner on the campaign trail. But more important may be his invoking the legacy of Mr. Obama, whose from-nowhere campaign the South Bend mayor is very clearly trying to emulate to Iowa voters who remain proud that they were responsible for launching Mr. Obama to the White House.

The opening minutes of Wednesday’s debate are showing the Democratic candidates as a united front against President Trump. The candidates are using the impeachment question an opportunity to pivot to elements of their own stump speeches.

Mr. Sanders spoke of economic inequality while Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Buttigieg, both fighting to be the party’s moderate standard-bearer, spoke about uniting the country in a post-Trump world.

It’s unlike most of the previous debates, that have opened with sharp exchanges about the candidates’ differences in health care policy and quibbles with President Obama’s legacy.

The first question went to Ms. Warren: Will she try to convince Senate Republicans that the president should be removed?

Ms. Warren takes the softball. Yes, she will.

“We have to establish the principle: No one is above the law,” she said, before pivoting to one of the reforms she’d implement as president: No donors will be appointed ambassador anywhere in the world.

“We are not going to give away ambassador posts to the highest bidder,” she said.

She challenged her rivals to take the same pledge.

“Anyone who wants to give me a big donation, don’t ask to be an ambassador because I’m not going to have that happen. I asked everyone who’s running for president to join me in that. And not a single person has so far,” Ms. Warren said.

When it was Mr. Sanders’s turn, he called Mr. Trump a “pathological liar” and the “most corrupt” president in American history. But he warned Democrats against focusing solely on Mr. Trump in 2020, lest they lose.

“We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump. Because if we are, you know what? We’re going to lose the election,” Mr. Sanders said. “We can deal with Trump’s corruption, but we also have to stand up for the working families of this country,” he said.

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