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 ButtigiegPoll: 68 percent of Democrats say it 'makes no difference' if a candidate is a billionaire CNN to host two straight nights of Democratic town halls before NH primary Poll shows tight general election battle between Trump and top Democrats 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 BidenSchiff closes Democrats' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump Conservative reporter on Sanders: He's not a 'yes man' Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment MORE’s campaign said he’d be on the attack against Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenKlobuchar plans campaign rallies across Iowa despite impeachment trial Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Wyden asks NSA to investigate White House cybersecurity | Commerce withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon objects | Warren calls on Brazil to drop Greenwald charges Warren pledges to release Trump records if elected MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders to Clinton: 'This is not the kind of rhetoric that we need' Conservative reporter on Sanders: He's not a 'yes man' Human Rights Campaign president rips Sanders's embrace of Rogan endorsement 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 TrumpTrump says his advice to impeachment defense team is 'just be honest' Trump expands tariffs on steel and aluminum imports CNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group 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 GabbardJoe Rogan says he's probably voting for Bernie Sanders Gabbard tells Fox that Clinton's 'Russian asset' remark is 'taking my life away' Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Bezos phone breach raises fears over Saudi hacking | Amazon seeks to halt Microsoft's work on 'war cloud' | Lawmakers unveil surveillance reform bill 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 BookerBlack caucus in Nevada: 'Notion that Biden has all of black vote is not true' The Hill's 12:30 Report: House managers to begin opening arguments on day two Patrick backs reparations in unveiling 'Equity Agenda for Black Americans' 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 HarrisHarris on 2020 endorsement: 'I am not thinking about it right now' Panel: Is Kamala Harris a hypocrite for mulling a Joe Biden endorsement? The Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power 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 KlobucharKlobuchar plans campaign rallies across Iowa despite impeachment trial Impeachment throws curveball in Iowa to sidelined senators Sanders says it's 'disappointing' he's not on campaign trail in Iowa 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.”