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 TrumpFormer New York state Senate candidate charged in riot Trump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report GOP senator clashes with radio caller who wants identity of cop who shot Babbitt 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 FeinsteinNearly 140 Democrats urge EPA to 'promptly' allow California to set its own vehicle pollution standards Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund Stripping opportunity from DC's children 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 BidenBriahna Joy Gray: White House thinks extending student loan pause is a 'bad look' Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Former New York state Senate candidate charged in riot 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 MurphyDemocrats ramp up pressure for infrastructure deal amid time crunch Democrats brace for slog on Biden's spending plan Overnight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia 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 SchumerBiden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Schumer's moment to transform transit and deepen democracy Pelosi, Schumer vow climate action: 'It is an imperative' 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 on Chicago mayor's decision to limit media interviews to people of color: 'Anti-white racism' Fox News says network and anchor Leland Vittert have 'parted ways' New co-chairs named for congressional caucus for millennials 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 ManchinJoe ManchinSenate votes to take up infrastructure deal GOP, Democrats battle over masks in House, Senate Sinema says she opposes .5T price tag for spending bill 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 GillibrandTreat broadband as infrastructure and we have a chance to get it right House panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors To make energy green, remove red tape 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 BookerHuman rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Juan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer 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 WarrenPelosi disputes Biden's power to forgive student loans Warren hits the airwaves for Newsom ahead of recall election Human rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action MORE (Mass.)  Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetLawmakers can't reconcile weakening the SALT cap with progressive goals How Sen. Graham can help fix the labor shortage with commonsense immigration reform For true American prosperity, make the child tax credit permanent MORE (Colo.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharOvernight Health Care: CDC advises vaccinated to wear masks in high-risk areas | Biden admin considering vaccine mandate for federal workers Four senators call on Becerra to back importation of prescription drugs from Canada Biden signals tough stance on tech with antitrust picks 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 CantwellBiden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Congress must act now to pass a bipartisan federal privacy law Democrats introduce equal pay legislation for US national team athletes 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 DurbinBiden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report GOP, Democrats battle over masks in House, Senate Democrats ramp up pressure for infrastructure deal amid time crunch 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.