Rivals target Biden as Democrats' rifts emerge on age, race

Tim Jimenez
June 28, 2019 - 6:44 am
Democratic presidential candidates, Marianne Williamson, John Hickenlooper, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet, Eric Swalwell, are shown during a Democratic primary debate.

Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo

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UPDATED: 9:22 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio / Associated Press) — Ten more candidates hit the stage for part two of the Democratic presidential debate Thursday night in Miami. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads the polls, was on the defensive.

California Sen. Kamala Harris confronted Biden about recent nostalgic comments he made about a time when lawmakers worked with each other in a civil way, and he used a couple of Democratic segregationist senators from the South as examples. 

Related: Health care, immigration top issues at Democrats' 1st debate

"I do not believe you are a racist," Harris said to Biden, but "It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United State Senators who built their reputations and career of segregation of race in this country."

She also mentioned Biden opposing school busing. 

"There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools. And she was bused to school everyday. And that little girl was me," she said.

Biden defended his record, from his time in the Senate to working in the Obama administration. 

"Everything I've done in my career, I ran because of civil rights. I continue to think we have to make fundamental changes in civil rights and those civil rights include, not just African Americans, but the LGBT community," he said.

"I'm the guy that extended the voting rights act for 25 years. We got to the place where we got 98 out of 98 votes in the United States Senate doing it."

Biden accused the Trump administration of embracing racism.

California Congressman Eric Swalwell, who's 38 years younger than Biden, also took a shot.

"Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago. He's still right today." 

Biden responded: "I'm still holding onto that torch."

Gloves come off

The night sounded a bit messy at times. At a moment of pointed chatter as the candidates talked over each other, Harris interjected.

"Hey guys you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we're gonna put food on their table."

The night marked an abrupt turning point in a Democratic primary in which candidates have largely tiptoed around each other, focusing instead on their shared desire to beat Trump. With millions of Americans peeking inside the Democrats' unruly 2020 season for the first time, the showdown revealed deep rifts eight months before primary voting begins.

The showdown featured four of the five strongest candidates — according to early polls, at least. Those are Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Harris. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who debated Wednesday night, is the fifth.

There are so many candidates lining up to take on Trump that they do not all fit on one debate stage — or even two. Twenty Democrats debated on national television this week in two waves of 10, while a handful more were left out altogether.

Trump, who was attending the Group of 20 summit in Japan, told reporters he watched some of the debate, broadcast on NBC, and said he wasn't impressed. He claimed it didn't go well for Biden or Sanders. Trump tweeted Friday that he heard it was "not a good day" for them. 

The level of diversity on display on the debate stage was unprecedented for a major political party in the United States. The field features six women, two African Americans, one Asian American and two men under 40, one of them gay.

Harris is the only African American woman to qualify for the presidential debate stage and showed she could land a forceful attack on rivals.

Any of the three women featured Thursday night would be the first ever elected president. Yet in the early days of the campaign, two white septuagenarians are leading the polls: Biden and Sanders.

Buttigieg, a 37-year-old gay former military officer, is four decades younger than Sanders and Biden and has framed his candidacy as a call for generational change in his party.

He displayed a fluency on a range of policy issues and hit hard on efforts by Republican Trump to stifle the flow of illegal immigration at the Mexican border.

"For a party that associates itself with Christianity to say it is OK to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages," that party "has lost all claim to ever use religious language," he said.

The party's broader fight over ideology took a back seat at times to its racial and generational divisions, which also flared when the discussion turned to health care.

Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist, slapped at his party's centrist candidates, vowing to fight for "real change." He raised his hand to indicate he would give up his private insurance coverage in favor of a government-financed plan.

Most of the candidates on stage, including Biden, didn't join him.

While many candidates, including Biden, embrace at least some version of Sanders' "Medicare for All" proposal, the former vice president also defended the role of private insurance, praising its role in the aftermath of the car accident that killed his wife and daughter and left his sons injured decades ago.

Sen. Bernie Sanders said taxes would go up to pay for his program. 

"People who have health care under 'Medicare for All' will have no premiums, no deductibles, no co-payments, no out-of-pocket expenses," he said. "Yes, they will pay more in taxes, but less for the health care they get."

Along with Medicare, Buttigieg defended private insurance, too, but he also said, "We can't just be relying on the tender mercies of the corporate system."

Buttigieg's night was defined in part by trouble back home that has represented the most significant leadership test in his young political career. The fresh-faced mayor faced tough questions about a recent police shooting in his city in which a white officer shot and killed a black man. He said an investigation was underway, and acknowledged the underlying racial tensions in his city and others.

"It's a mess," he said plainly, noting that such issues have plagued communities across America. "We're hurting."

He sidestepped pointed calls to fire his police chief, calling instead for a time when white and black people would react the same way when confronted by police.

Little-known California Rep. Eric Swalwell, who is just 38 years old, was among Buttigieg's chief critics. He also took a swipe at Biden's advanced age.

Either Biden or Sanders would be the oldest president ever elected.

"Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago," Swalwell jabbed.

Biden responded: "I'm still holding onto that torch." 

Others on the stage Thursday night included Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who tried to elbow her way into the packed debate at times, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, New York businessman Andrew Yang and author and social activist Marianne Williamson.

The showdown played out in Florida, a general election battleground that could well determine whether Trump wins a second term next year.

Biden sought to sidestep the intraparty divisions altogether, training his venom on Trump.

"Donald Trump thinks Wall Street built America. Ordinary middle-class Americans built America," he said, adding, "Donald Trump has put us in a horrible situation. We do have enormous income inequality."

Biden downplayed his establishment leanings at times. Along with the other candidates on stage, he raised his hand to say his health care plan would provide coverage for immigrants in the country illegally.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper predicted that an aggressive lurch to the left on key policies would ultimately hurt Democrats' quest to defeat Trump.

"If we don't clearly define we are not socialists, the Republicans are going to come at us every way they can and call us socialists," he warned.

Their first round of debates is finished, but the real struggle is just beginning for most of the candidates.

All will work aggressively to leverage their debate performance and the related media attention to their advantage in the coming days. There is a real sense of urgency for more than a dozen who fear they may not reach donor and polling thresholds to qualify for later debates.

Should they fail to qualify, and many will fail, this week's debates may have marked the high point for their personal presidential ambitions.

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The Associated Press' Steve Peoples, Juana Summers and Colleen Long contributed to this report. © Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.