WESTERVILLE (Ohio)• • Democratic presidential contenders defended the congressional impeachment inquiry of US President Donald Trump during a debate on Tuesday, saying that Mr Trump needed to be held accountable for his actions and for stonewalling Congress in its probe.
The 12 Democrats meeting in the fourth presidential debate found a unifying message right off the bat: Republican Trump is a corrupt president and must be impeached.
The Democrats used some of their harshest language yet against Mr Trump, in their first match-up since the launch of a congressional impeachment inquiry into his efforts to pressure Ukraine to probe his unsubstantiated claim that former vice-president Joe Biden - a top Democratic contender - had improperly tried to aid his son Hunter's business in the country.
Mr Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders both said in the opening minutes of the party's debate that Mr Trump was "the most corrupt president in history" and that Congress would be remiss if it did not pursue the impeachment probe.
Senator Elizabeth Warren added: "Impeachment is the way that we establish that this man will not be permitted to break the law over and over without consequences." She said she had called for the impeachment after special counsel Robert Mueller's findings on election interference by Russia.
But Congress did not move to impeach, she said. "And look what happened: Donald Trump broke the law again."
Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who has poured millions into an impeach-Trump fund since 2017, tipped his hat to his rivals in his first debate.
"Every candidate here is more decent and coherent and patriotic than that criminal in the White House," said Mr Steyer, the last candidate to jump into the race.
Mr Biden said Mr Trump was coming after him to avoid facing him in next year's election. "Look, my son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong. I carried out the policy of the United States government in rooting out corruption in Ukraine and that's what we should be focused on," Mr Biden said. "What I think is important is we focus on why it's so important to remove this man from office."
Mr Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said "the President had left Congress with no choice".
But some Democrats have warned that the party should bring Americans on board to support the probe. "We have to conduct this process in a way that is honourable," said Senator Cory Booker.
The dozen candidates cramming the debate stage in the electoral battleground state of Ohio made for the most crowded debate so far in the Democratic race to pick a challenger to Mr Trump for the election in November next year.
The 10 candidates who took part in the third debate in Texas last month all qualified for Tuesday's event, along with Mr Steyer and Representative Tulsi Gabbard.
The debate comes at a critical time, as Mr Biden's once solid lead in opinion polls in the Democratic race has been diminished by the rise of Ms Warren, a leader of the party's progressive movement, over the past two months.
It also comes as the Democratic contenders fight to be heard through the din of impeachment news, with less than four months until the first nominating contest in Iowa on Feb 3.