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Democrats express alarm over debate's negative tone

Democratic lawmakers were left shaken and worried by Wednesday night’s bruising presidential debate, which left some fearing the fight will hurt the party and result in a damaged nominee.

Senate Democrats are frustrated that candidates are spending too much time and effort attacking each other for relatively small policy differences, while not focusing their ire on President TrumpDonald TrumpDonald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen's dropped charges 'liberal privilege' Schiff sees challenges for intel committee, community in Trump's shadow McConnell says he'd back Trump as 2024 GOP nominee MORE.

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They worry the intraparty food fight is overshadowing what they see as the main goal: Drawing a clear contrast between the Democratic candidates and Trump on health care and other key issues.

“I’m of the view that we have always been a party of ideas,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinProgressive support builds for expanding lower courts Menendez reintroduces corporate diversity bill What exactly are uber-woke educators teaching our kids? MORE (Calif.). “I think everybody should sort of consider that.”

She said there is “concern” within the caucus of the increasingly vicious attacks, particularly against the front-runner, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden 'disappointed' in Senate parliamentarian ruling but 'respects' decision Taylor Swift celebrates House passage of Equality Act Donald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen's dropped charges 'liberal privilege' MORE.

“People take sides and then they become hypersensitive and that just makes divisions all over the party and we don’t want that,” she said. “I want every one of our candidates to do well.”

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyMinimum wage setback revives progressive calls to nix Senate filibuster New rule shakes up Senate Armed Services subcommittees Biden pledges action on guns amid resistance MORE (D-Conn.) blamed the debate moderators for much of the negativity.

“I think these debates are really silly,” he said. “Just the incessant focus on these relative minor divisions between candidates might make for good TV but I don’t think gives people an accurate portrayal of the stakes of this election.”

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHillicon Valley: Biden signs order on chips | Hearing on media misinformation | Facebook's deal with Australia | CIA nominee on SolarWinds House Rules release new text of COVID-19 relief bill Budowsky: Cruz goes to Cancun, AOC goes to Texas MORE (N.Y.) also voiced concern about the tone of the debates, in what could have been a signal to the candidates.

“No circular firing squads,” he said during an interview Thursday with SiriusXM’s Joe Madison.

Schumer focused on the infighting over health care.

“If we get all focused on the differences between, say Bernie [Sanders] and Cory [Booker] and Mayor Pete [Buttigieg] and [John] Hickenlooper, we’ll lose sight of the fact that it’s Donald Trump who’s now trying to reduce health care, destroy health care, get it rid for everybody,” Schumer said, adding, “That’s a trap we shouldn’t fall into.”

Both the Tuesday and Wednesday night debates featured arguments between Democratic candidates, but the second night was much more personal, with Biden coming under fire for the crime bill he authored in the 1990s and an op-ed he wrote in 1981.

Harris came under fire from Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard blasts new House rules on gender neutral language as 'height of hypocrisy' A vaccine, a Burrito and more: 7 lighter, memorable moments from 2020 Growing number of House Republicans warm to proxy voting MORE (D-Hawaii), who attacked her record as a prosecutor and attorney general.

Gabbard accused Harris of blocking evidence “that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so” and keeping convicts “in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California.”

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinMinimum wage setback revives progressive calls to nix Senate filibuster Biden 'disappointed' in Senate parliamentarian ruling but 'respects' decision House Democrats to keep minimum wage hike in COVID-19 relief bill for Friday vote MORE (D-W.Va.) called the attacks hurled back and forth among the presidential hopefuls “awful.”

“It’s not who I am, it’s not what I believe in, I don’t think it helps anybody — to attack each other and try to annihilate each other,” he said. “It’s just awful. The whole scenario is bad.”

“Run for something, don’t run against something,” he added.

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandCapito asks White House to allow toxic chemicals rule to proceed Lobbying world The Memo: Punish Trump or risk a repeat, warn Democrats MORE (D-N.Y.) accused Biden of being opposed to women in the workplace based on a 1981 op-ed he wrote.

“What did you mean when you said when a woman works outside the home, it’s resulting in ‘the deterioration of family?'” Gillibrand said, challenging Biden’s decades-old opposition to a bill that would have expanded the child tax credit to richer couples.

Biden defended himself by insisting that he wanted the economic aid to go to families earning less than $100,000.

Biden came under attack from Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerObama says reparations 'justified' Congressional Black Caucus unveils '100 Day Plan' Menendez reintroduces corporate diversity bill MORE (D-N.J.) for his role in crafting the 1994 crime bill, which critics said fueled mass incarceration across the United States.

“There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that ‘tough on crime’ phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine,” Booker said during the debate.

Biden for his part criticized Booker’s crime-fighting record as Newark mayor and his use of controversial stop-and-frisk policing tactics.  

The battling could feel personal in the Senate, since so many of the people on stage are senators or former senators. Harris, Booker, Sanders and Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenMinimum wage setback revives progressive calls to nix Senate filibuster Democratic strategists start women-run media consulting firm Becerra says he wants to 'build on' ObamaCare when pressed on Medicare for All MORE (Mass.)  Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetDemocrats: Minimum wage isn't the only issue facing parliamentarian Democrats plan crackdown on rising drug costs Overnight Health Care: Biden officials announce funding to track virus variants | Senate Dems unveil public option proposal | White House: Teacher vaccinations not required for schools to reopen MORE (Colo.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharOpen-ended antitrust is an innovation killer FBI, DHS and Pentagon officials to testify on Capitol riot Five big takeaways on the Capitol security hearings MORE (Minn.) are the Senate contenders for the White House. Biden served in the Senate for more than three decades.

Feinstein said colleagues are concerned that the candidates are pulling out the long knives six months before the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses. That leaves plenty of time for resentments and factions to become fixed.

“This is so unusual because it’s so far ahead of an election,” she said, noting that attack ads are often reserved for the final weeks of a campaign.

Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellRegulators keep close eye on Facebook's deal with Australia Video stirs emotions on Trump trial's first day Airlines warn of new furloughs without more federal aid MORE (D-Wash.) said she wanted to hear more discussion about the candidates' plans for boosting the economy and creating jobs.

“I definitely want them to be more focused on job creation,” she said. “I thought there was more that could be said about our economic strategy.”

Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinMurkowski undecided on Tanden as nomination in limbo Democrats ask FBI for plans to address domestic extremism following Capitol attack Progressive support builds for expanding lower courts MORE (Ill.) said he’s concerned the party infighting over health care obscures what he sees as the more important topic of the 2020 election: the difference between Trump and the Democrats.

“I think we’re digging into this whole Medicare debate in such detail that we’re missing the obvious. What this president is trying to do with existing health care should be the issue,” he said.

“Getting lost in the minutia of this, I think, confuses voters and is a waste of time,” Durbin said of the Democrat-on-Democrat attacks on competing health care ideas.

Nathanial Weixel contributed.