Warren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann Warren2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Sanders doubles down on Bolivia 'coup,' few follow suit Overnight Health Care: GOP senator says drug price action unlikely this year | House panel weighs ban on flavored e-cigs | New York sues Juul MORE (D-Mass.) cemented her position as the leading candidate to win the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday, aggressively parrying attacks from her rivals and turning the conversation to her own purpose.
 
To her left — physically, if not ideologically — South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul Buttigieg2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Overnight Health Care: GOP senator says drug price action unlikely this year | House panel weighs ban on flavored e-cigs | New York sues Juul Buttigieg surges to 10-point lead in New Hampshire: 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 TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' 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 Biden2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' Overnight Health Care: GOP senator says drug price action unlikely this year | House panel weighs ban on flavored e-cigs | New York sues Juul 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 Klobuchar2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Sanders official predicts health care, climate change will be top issues in fifth Democratic debate Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock 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 Gabbard2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Sanders reclaims second place in new 2020 poll New poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa 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'RourkeDeval Patrick enters 2020 race O'Rourke says he 'absolutely' plans to stay in politics Krystal Ball: Buttigieg is 'the boomer candidate' 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 YangYang unveils plan to expand voter access Sanders official predicts health care, climate change will be top issues in fifth Democratic debate Panel: Dem candidates fear Tulsi attacks on debate stage 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 DelaneyPoll: Biden holds 20-point lead in South Carolina Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Delaney to take message to Iowa voters on Sunday with infomercial 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 ClintonDemocrats ask judge for quick ruling on McGahn subpoena Hillary Clinton: 'Every day Stephen Miller remains in the White House is an emergency' The Memo: Centrists change tone of Democratic race 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."