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Five town hall takeaways: Warren shines, Sanders gives ammo to critics

Five Democratic presidential hopefuls made their cases to an audience of college students during a marathon series of CNN town halls on Monday, an event that offered one of the clearest glimpses to date of the still-emerging primary field.

Those town halls — featuring Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Clyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts Prepare for buyers' remorse when Biden/Harris nationalize health care MORE (I-Vt.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Biden can rebuild trust in our justice system by prioritizing prosecutorial reform Harris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence MORE (Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Disney laying off 32,000 workers as coronavirus batters theme parks Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year MORE (Mass.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE's national security risk Democrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff YouTube temporarily suspends OANN account after spreading coronavirus misinformation MORE (Minn.), as well as South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete Buttigieg'Biff is president': Michael J. Fox says Trump has played on 'every worst instinct in mankind' Buttigieg: Denying Biden intelligence briefings is about protecting Trump's 'ego' Biden's win is not a policy mandate — he should govern accordingly MORE — touched on everything from felon voting rights to the question of whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation MORE should be impeached for possible obstruction of justice.

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But the slate of appearances also provided a close look at the state of the 2020 primary, as the contenders raced to stand out in a field that has so far grown to 19 people.

Here are five takeaways from the town halls:

Democrats are split on impeachment

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s report may be out, but Democrats are far from unified on just how far they should go in addressing its contents.

Warren, who became the first 2020 hopeful to call for the House to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump last week, doubled down on that stance, arguing that lawmakers have a civic duty to weigh in on whether the president should be removed from office.

And Harris made news on Monday when she said that Congress should take steps toward impeaching Trump, pointing to what she said was evidence in Mueller’s report that the president obstructed justice. 

Mueller's report did not make a determination on whether obstruction had occurred, leaving it to Congress to make its own determination.

But other candidates were more wary about the prospect of impeachment.

Sanders warned that talk of the president’s removal from office could backfire on Democrats in 2020 by distracting from kitchen-table issues.

And Klobuchar was similarly circumspect in addressing impeachment. She didn’t say directly whether lawmakers should move toward such action, but noted that the Senate would ultimately have to weigh in if the House brings impeachment charges.

Buttigieg said that he believed the president “deserves impeachment.” But he kicked the can to Congress to decide whether to take on that process.

“I’m going to leave it to the House and Senate to figure that out,” Buttigieg said.

Warren shines. Will she get a bump?

Since announcing her presidential bid on New Year’s Eve, Warren has been gunning for the moment that catapults her into the spotlight. On Monday, she may have gotten it.

She led the way on the impeachment question, forcing every candidate on Monday night to confront the matter. And her recollection of experiencing sexism in her political career went viral.

“I jumped in the race and sure enough the only coverage is about what I’m wearing, about my hair or my voice or if I smiled enough,” Warren said in response to a question about whether she was worried about being “Hillary’d” — held to a higher standard than her male counterparts — on the campaign trail.

The Massachusetts senator’s performance drew immediate praise from pundits on social media, including David Axelrod, a veteran Democratic consultant and former chief strategist to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' Texas warehouse where migrants housed in 'cages' closed for humane renovation North Carolina — still purple but up for grabs MORE’s presidential campaigns, and Ezra Klein, an editor-at-large at Vox.

“Been on a plane and in cars watching the fascinating candidate Town Halls on @CNN,” Axelrod tweeted. “One thing I’d note right off the top: Passionate @ewarren oration on the anti-consumer aspects of ‘05 bankruptcy bill was a not-very-subtle shot across the bow to @JoeBiden, who fought for it.” 

And liberals praised Warren for distilling difficult policy issues into understandable soundbites that would appeal to working-class voters.

“That monopolies answer by Warren in her CNN townhall was killer. A master class is how to clearly explain a complex policy ... without collapsing into jargon,” Klein wrote. “The idea that Warren isn’t a charismatic speaker is insane. This is the stuff people gushed over Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTrump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Obama: 'Hopeless' to try to sell as many books as Michelle Dow breaks 30,000 for first time as Biden transition ramps up MORE for.”

Bernie gives political ammunition to critics

Sanders’s critics are chomping at the bit to cast him as too extreme. The Vermont senator might have given those critics new ammunition on Monday night to argue that he’s outside the mainstream.

Sanders was asked if he supports voting rights for incarcerated individuals, including domestic terrorists such as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is in prison and has been sentenced to death.

Sanders unapologetically responded that everyone, including violent criminals who are guilty of sexual assault and murder, should be able to vote from prison.

“Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away … you’re running down a slippery slope,” Sanders said.

CNN host Chris Cuomo told Sanders he may have just cut an attack ad against himself.

“I’ve written many 30-second opposition ads against myself in my life, this will be just another one,” Sanders responded.

A few minutes later, the Republican National Committee sent out an email blast calling Sanders’s remarks “beyond extreme.”

Buttigieg later got a big round of applause for disagreeing with Sanders, saying that incarcerated individuals should not be able to vote but that those released from prison should be re-enfranchised.

“Part of the punishment when you’re convicted of a crime and incarcerated is you lose certain rights,” Buttigieg said.

Candidates try to tune out Trump

The Democratic candidates are vying to be the one to take on Trump in the general election, but there’s a clear effort underway to prevent Trump from saturating the entire debate.

Democrats are trying to cut through the noise around the president with policy ideas they believe will appeal to the working-class voters that propelled Trump’s surprise 2016 victory.

Time after time, the Democrats on stage refused to take the bait on questions about Trump, instead steering the conversation back to their policies.

Warren was asked directly how she’d handle Trump’s insults if she becomes the nominee. She responded by launching into an extended riff about how she had to work her way up through the world after going to community college.

“We’re not going to win by just saying not Donald Trump,” Warren said. “We’re not going to win by doing better name-calling than he does. The way we’re going to do this is get out and talk about our vision and how it affects families and touches people personally.”

And in warning Democrats that their impeachment efforts might backfire, Sanders said the party risks becoming consumed by the president and taking their eye off the issues that matter to ordinary Americans.

“I worry that works to Trump’s advantage," Sanders said.

Candidates forced to reckon with their past records

Whether it was Klobuchar’s onetime reputation as a tough-on-crime county attorney or Sanders’s lack of foreign policy expertise, every candidate that took the stage on Monday night was forced to grapple with their pasts.

Warren, for instance, was asked about the fact that she was registered to vote as a Republican until 1995. She said that it was only when she became politically involved in the mid-1990s that she made the decision to switch parties.

“That's when I jumped in politically,” Warren recalled. “I got in that fight, and I fought it for 10 years, and by the end of that fight, I fully understood that every single Republican stood there for the banks and half of the Democrats did.”

And Sanders acknowledged that he was “rightfully” criticized in 2016 for his lack of foreign policy expertise, assuring town hall attendees that he has since learned to “think a little bit more about foreign policy issues than I previously did.”

Buttigieg spent a good chunk of the night on the defensive over polices that critics have said negatively impacted communities of color in South Bend.

Buttigieg defended his demotion of the city’s first-ever African-American police chief, but acknowledged that he underestimated the ripple effect it would have.

“I was a little bit slow to understand just how much anguish underlaid the community’s response to this,” Buttigieg said. “It was about whether communities of color could trust that their police department has their best interests at heart.”

And while he defended a program to demolish abandoned or vacant houses, Buttigieg nodded at criticism that it led to poor minority families being priced out of their neighborhoods.

“No policy is perfect and we learned some things the hard way on this one,” Buttigieg said.