Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate

Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate
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The 2020 Democratic White House hopefuls are locked in a furious fight for the nomination with the Iowa caucuses only 74 days away, but you might not know it by the tempered tone of Wednesday night’s debate in Atlanta.

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 entered the night with a target on his back after rising to the top of the pack in recent polls of Iowa and New Hampshire.

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’s campaign said he’d be on the attack against Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSaagar Enjeti says Buttigieg's release of McKinsey client list shows he 'caved to public pressure' On The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA Bill Weld: As many as six GOP senators privately support convicting Trump MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSaagar Enjeti says Buttigieg's release of McKinsey client list shows he 'caved to public pressure' Sanders endorses Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur for Katie Hill's former House seat Biden hires Clinton, O'Rourke alum as campaign's digital director MORE (I-Vt.) over their "Medicare for All" plans.

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And bad blood has been brewing for months between the progressive candidates, Warren and Sanders, and the centrist Democrats, led by Biden and Buttigieg, who are locked in a bitter battle over the future direction of the party.

But those fights were largely tabled on Wednesday night, as the top four candidates — Biden, Warren, Buttigieg and Sanders — largely played nice with one another.

It helped that the debate kicked off on a note that all of the candidates could agree on — that the impeachment hearings have proved 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's corruption and that the Democrats must focus on finding a message that ensures he does not get a second term in office.

“I think the way we achieve our goals and bring the country together is to talk about the things that unite us,” Warren said at the top of the debate.

The previous debates have included explosive exchanges over policy issues, from health care to federal busing, that have sometimes become personal.

But that combative approach was largely absent on Wednesday night, although there were a few tense moments that could prove revealing in hindsight.

Buttigieg and 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), the two military veterans onstage, had the sharpest exchange of the night.

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Gabbard accused Buttigieg of saying he’d send the U.S. military into Mexico to deal with the drug cartels there.

“It’s par for the course in Washington to take remarks out of context but that is outlandish even by the standards of today’s politics,” Buttigieg shot back.

The South Bend mayor then quickly pivoted to Gabbard’s 2017 meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, who used chemical weapons on his own people.

“Let’s talk about judgment,” Buttigieg said. “One of the foreign leaders you mentioned meeting is Bashar Assad, I have … enough judgment that I would not have sat down with a murderous dictator like that.”

The back-and-forth proved to be a good showing for the 37-year-old Buttigieg, who is seeking to convince Democrats that he has the experience and grit needed to take on Trump.

The candidates did find time to skirmish on health care as well.

Democrats were largely united on the issue during the 2018 midterms, but it has torn the party apart in 2020, as the candidates debate whether they should build on ObamaCare or uproot the system in favor of Medicare for All.

Buttigieg seized an early moment to make the case for his middle ground approach of “Medicare for all who want it.”

Biden backed him up, arguing that the Warren and Sanders plans would be divisive and a dealbreaker both in Congress and among voters.

“Most Democrats don’t support Medicare for All,” Biden said. “It couldn’t pass the Senate or the House. Speaker Pelosi thinks it doesn’t make sense.”

Warren, whose poll numbers have slipped as she’s come under fire over how she’d pay for and implement Medicare for All, took the opportunity to defend her prolonged rollout, saying she would ease people away from their private plans over time.

Sanders was his usual feisty self on the issue.

“Some up here think we should not take on the insurance industry or the pharmaceutical industry ... well I think now is the time,” he said.

But the health care exchange was dull in comparison to previous debates, in which the candidates jumped into and out of fiery free-for-alls that descended into shouting and chaos.

In the second hour of the debate, Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerTrump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Wisconsin: poll Booker says he will not make December debate stage White House makes push for paid family leave and child care reform MORE (D-N.J.), who has savaged Biden on issues of race and cast him as old and out of touch, did it again, targeting remarks the former vice president made this week about opposing marijuana legalization.

“This week I hear him literally say we shouldn’t legalize marijuana,” Booker said. “I thought you might’ve been high when you said it. Marijuana is already legal for privileged white people. The war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people.”

And the bad blood between Gabbard and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — House passes sweeping Pelosi bill to lower drug prices | Senate confirms Trump FDA pick | Trump officials approve Medicaid work requirements in South Carolina Sanders endorses Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur for Katie Hill's former House seat Kamala Harris dropped out, but let's keep her mental health plan alive MORE (D-Calif.) was on full display once again on Wednesday night, as the moderators pit the two rivals directly against one another.

But mostly, the Democrats found common ground on climate change being an emergency, the importance of reestablishing relationships with longtime U.S. allies, drawing down Trump’s trade war, addressing wealth and income inequality and expanding access to child care or paid family leave.

The night was mostly defined by the candidates deciding to pull their punches, even when they were set up to take a swing.

Harris, who badly needs some momentum in the race, had an opportunity to take a shot at Buttigieg after his campaign was caught using a stock photo from Kenya to promote his outreach to black voters.

“I believe the mayor has made apologies for that,” Harris said.

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And 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.) was asked to expand on her remarks about how if a woman had the same experience as Buttigieg she would not have made it this far in the primary.

“I made very clear I think Pete is qualified to be up here and I’m honored to be standing here next to him,” Klobuchar said.

The Democrats wouldn’t even take shots at other Democrats who were not on the stage.

Toward the end of the night, Warren was asked if there is room in the party for Democrats such as Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who opposes abortion.

Warren responded: "I’m not here to try to drive anyone out of this party, I'm not here to try to build fences.”