Warren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field

 
To her left — physically, if not ideologically — South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSaagar Enjeti says Buttigieg's release of McKinsey client list shows he 'caved to public pressure' Biden hires Clinton, O'Rourke alum as campaign's digital director Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Wisconsin: poll MORE locked in his own budding reputation as the pit bull in the field, sparring with any and all available opponents who dared come his way.
 
In what remains a massive field of candidates, 12 of whom qualified for Tuesday's debate in Westerville, Ohio, Warren and Buttigieg stood out from a pack of others who felt at times like they were fading from view.
 
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The sixth debate held so far this year conformed to many of the same patterns that have emerged in each previous contest: The early hour was dominated by a feud over health care reform, in which the sharpest and best-practiced attacks were lobbed against the front-runners. Then the candidates turned their focus to President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE, retreated to comfortable talking points unless opportunity for another practiced line presented itself, and pledged party unity in opposition to Trump's second term.
 
On Tuesday, however, two more trends began to emerge: While former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Conservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' Democrat representing Pennsylvania district Trump carried plans to vote to impeach  MORE continues to claim the front-runner mantle, Warren's rivals began to act like they believe the public polls that show she is leading the Democratic field.
 
And Buttigieg's sharp elbows were on display more pointedly Tuesday as he took shots at a majority of the other candidates on stage in an effort to capitalize on what Democratic voters almost universally say is one of the sharpest and most eloquent minds in the Democratic field. 
 
Buttigieg's first target was Warren herself, after moderators once again put the Massachusetts senator on the spot over whether her "Medicare for All" proposal would raise taxes on middle class Americans. After Warren repeated the same talking point several times, Buttigieg said she had failed to answer a yes-or-no question.
 
"Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this," Buttigieg said. "I don't understand why you believe the only way to deliver affordable coverage to everybody is to obliterate private plans."
 
Buttigieg was not the only Democrat who took on Warren's Medicare for All proposal. Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Booker says he will not make December debate stage Yang: 2020 rivals in Senate should be able to campaign amid impeachment MORE (D-Minn.), staking out the same relatively centrist ground as her fellow Midwesterner, said Warren had not been honest about whether her plan would raise taxes.
 
 
At times, Sanders, Warren's closest ideological ally on stage, acted as her secret weapon, defending her positions in more succinct ways than she had. Sanders, who has spent two presidential races defending his policies rather than his politics, routinely stepped in between Warren and some of her rivals' most cutting attacks.
 
Biden, the consummate senator who values the relational aspects of politics, declined to engage with his progressive rivals. Asked whether Warren or Sanders could win a general election, Biden struck a middle course.
 
"Well I think their vision is attracting a lot of people, and I think a lot of what they have to say is really important," Biden said of Warren and Sanders, before pivoting to his own record. "I'm the only one on this stage that's gotten anything really big done."
 
Buttigieg was not content to take on the two leading liberals on stage. He sparred with Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardDemocrats set early state primary debates for 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Gabbard news items generating more social interactions than other 2020 Democrats: study MORE (D-Hawaii), who barely qualified for Tuesday's debate, over her support for President Trump's decision to abandon Kurdish military forces in northern Syria.
 
"When we think our only choices are between endless war or total isolation, the consequence is the disappearance of U.S. leadership from the world stage, and that makes the entire world a more dangerous place," Buttigieg said.
 
Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeButtigieg picks up third congressional endorsement from New York lawmaker Klobuchar hires staff in Nevada Deval Patrick enters 2020 race MORE (D-Texas) also sharply disagreed over O'Rourke's call for mandatory buy-backs of assault-style rifles like the AR-15 and the AK-47.
 
O'Rourke, who has turned his campaign into a crusade for gun control measures after a mass shooting left more than 20 people dead in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, in August, called Buttigieg a "poll-tested" politician after Buttigieg cast doubt on O'Rourke's buy-back proposal. Buttigieg called O'Rourke naive.
 
"We cannot wait for purity tests, we just have to get something done," Buttigieg said. "I don't need lessons from you on courage, political or personal."
 
Facing attacks from most of the other candidates on stage, Warren spent much of Tuesday's debate defending herself from candidates eager to take on the front-runner. At times, O'Rourke, Klobuchar, businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangBooker says he will not make December debate stage Yang: 2020 rivals in Senate should be able to campaign amid impeachment Democrats set early state primary debates for 2020 MORE and even Biden all turned their attention to the Massachusetts Democrat.
  
In a previous debate, Warren unleashed a withering critique of a candidate who did not make Tuesday's stage, former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyThe great AI debate: What candidates are (finally) saying about artificial intelligence Delaney to DNC: Open second debate stage for candidates who qualified for past events Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates MORE (D-Md.). She did not understand, Warren said then, why any candidate would run for president by claiming something was too hard to do. On Tuesday, she broadened that critique to her entire field of rivals.
 
"I understand that this is hard. But 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.
 
The Democratic debates so far this year have mirrored the contests in 2016, when Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden hires Clinton, O'Rourke alum as campaign's digital director Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Wisconsin: poll Clinton tweets impeachment website, encourages voters to 'see the evidence for themselves' MORE fought most of their battles over policy proposals while the Republican field competed to insult each other in the gravest — or most craven — terms. 
 
Even in the most heated moments of the debate, the 12 Democrats on stage sought to turn attention back to their common foe, President Trump.
 
"Russia and Putin understand strength. This president, time and time again, is showing moral weakness," Booker said in a largely harmonious conversation about Trump's decision to pull troops out of Kurdish Syria. "This president is making us less safe. He is partnering with Putin more than he is with [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and [French President Emmanuel] Macron."