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Surging Warren draws Democrats' fire

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate rejects Sanders minimum wage hike Philly city council calls on Biden to 'cancel all student loan debt' in first 100 days Hillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case MORE (D-Mass.) came under fire from several of her Democratic rivals at Tuesday's primary debate, reflecting her newfound front-runner status and testing her ability to weather criticism.

A handful of contenders took turns criticizing Warren over everything from her support for "Medicare for All" to her oft-repeated call for an additional tax on the wealthiest Americans.

At one point, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) described the Massachusetts senator as “more interested in being punitive” than in uniting a divided country. 

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“I think we need to be focused on lifting people up,” O’Rourke said. “Sometimes I think that Sen. Warren is more focused on being punitive and pitting one part of the country against the other.”

Likewise, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: China implicated in Microsoft breach | White House adds Big Tech critic | QAnon unfazed after false prediction FDA signals plan to address toxic elements in baby food Sen. Tina Smith calls for eliminating filibuster MORE (D-Minn.) accused Warren of casting herself as the only candidate on stage willing to stand up to the ultrawealthy. Rather, she argued, the candidates simply have different approaches to tackling the issues facing Americans.

“I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth. No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires,” Klobuchar said, referring to billionaire philanthropist and presidential candidate Tom SteyerTom SteyerGOP targets ballot initiatives after progressive wins On The Trail: The political losers of 2020 Biden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far MORE. “We have different approaches. Your idea is not the only idea.”

One of the most heated exchanges of the evening came during a discussion over health care and Medicare for All, the single-payer health care system proposed by Warren and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSinema pushes back on criticism of her vote against minimum wage, implying that it's sexist Biden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package Schumer insists Democrats unified after chaotic coronavirus debate MORE (I-Vt.). 

When Warren punted on a question about whether such a health care model would require raising taxes for middle-class Americans, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Senate begins marathon vote-a-rama before .9T COVID-19 relief passage The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Virus relief bill headed for weekend vote Biden turns focus to next priority with infrastructure talks MORE went on the attack. 

“A yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer,” Buttigieg said of Warren’s response. “Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything — except this.”

The barrage of attacks is reflective of Warren’s top-tier status in the Democratic primary contest. She’s steadily climbed to the top of polls in recent weeks, in some cases even surpassing former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Myanmar military conducts violent night raids Confidence in coronavirus vaccines has grown with majority now saying they want it MORE, the longtime front-runner. 

She also raked in one of the heftiest sums of campaign cash in the third fundraising quarter of the year — roughly $25.6 million. Only one other candidate, Sanders, pulled in more money in the past three months. 

The attacks also showcased an emerging reality in the primary contest: Warren, not Sanders, is now seen by her opponents as the most formidable progressive in the race.

At the same time, some of Warren’s lower-polling opponents at Tuesday night’s debate — namely Buttigieg, Klobuchar and O’Rourke — are in desperate need of a boost.

Klobuchar and O’Rourke have lingered in the low single-digits in public polls for months, while Buttigieg, who saw success early on in the primary contest, has declined over the past several months.

For her part, Warren was aggressive in defending herself from her critics, arguing that Democrats should aspire to bring about sweeping political and economic change rather than resign themselves to more incremental policy adjustments. 

Her performance also showed that, even with her newfound frontrunner status, she is capable of fending off aggressive criticism.

“I think as Democrats we are going to succeed when we dream big and fight hard, not when we dream small and quit before we get started,” Warren said.

--Updated at 10:26 p.m.