Warren holds her own in race for heart and soul of party

From left: Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke taking part in the first Democratic presidential debate in Miami on Wednesday night.
From left: Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke taking part in the first Democratic presidential debate in Miami on Wednesday night.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Senator takes control with robust answers in first Democratic presidential debate

MIAMI • They skirmished over healthcare and immigration. They largely agreed on income inequality and climate change. With Democrats eager to narrow the field, Ms Elizabeth Warren and nine lesser-ranked candidates waged what New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called a "battle for the heart and soul of our party".

It is only half-time in the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 election, with 10 more candidates set to take the stage last night (this morning, Singapore time) - including former vice-president Joe Biden, who leads in most polls.

And there will be at least five more debates before the first primary vote is cast.

But Wednesday's two-hour opening act, broadcast nationally on NBC, gave some clues about what the US Democratic primary will sound like, and where the race to find a challenger to President Donald Trump is going.

Positioned on centre stage, Massachusetts Senator Warren monopolised the field. The senator, who has steadily risen in polls over the past two months, paired crisp answers and detailed policy proposals with believable outrage about key party issues.

She was freed from her biggest rivals, Mr Biden and fellow Senator Bernie Sanders, who faced off last night.

She robustly defended her plans for "structural" changes to the US economy, saying the current system is tilted to benefit the wealthy. She said laws were in place to take on corporate giants but leaders needed the courage to enforce them. She avoided major gaffes and pitched her campaign lines about a progressive agenda to a national audience.

Positioned on centre stage, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren monopolised the field. The senator, who has steadily risen in polls over the past two months, paired crisp answers and detailed policy proposals with believable outrage about key party issues.

Even the NBC moderators treated Ms Warren like the candidate to beat, giving her a second question even before half the debate participants had spoken. She got the final word before the candidates left the stage.

Senator Amy Klobuchar delivered the most memorable zingers, calling out Washington Governor Jay Inslee when he tried to claim the abortion rights mantle.

"I just want to say, there's three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman's right to choose," she said to applause.

Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who repeatedly cited her military service, corrected Ohio Representative Tim Ryan on whether Al-Qaeda or the Taleban were responsible for the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro all competed for the best Spanish-language delivery.

On issues like climate change, abortion rights and income inequality, the Democrats seemed largely in sync. But when it came to healthcare, some of the old policy schisms emerged.

When moderator Lester Holt asked for a show of hands to see who supports a government-run healthcare system known as Medicare for All, only two did - Ms Warren and Mr de Blasio, who said they would abolish private health insurance.

Mr O'Rourke, who gained fame for nearly unseating Republican Senator Ted Cruz in last year's election, got roughed up by other candidates for backing private health insurance, refusing to support decriminalising crossing the border and for not directly answering questions.

In one sharp exchange on immigration, fellow Texan Castro pointedly said to Mr O'Rourke: "If you did your homework on this issue, you would know (more about it)."

Within the first few minutes of the debate, names of some of the biggest US corporations were being thrown out as targets.

Mr Ryan attacked General Motors for laying off workers in Lordstown, Ohio, while building the new Chevrolet Blazer sport utility vehicle in Mexico. Mr Booker said he felt very strongly about antitrust enforcement and added that he would single out companies like Halliburton or Amazon, saying they paid nothing in taxes.

"If billionaires can pay off their yachts, students should be able to pay off their student loans," Ms Klobuchar said.

One person was largely absent from the debates: Mr Trump.

While the candidates occasionally attacked his policies, they stuck mostly to the key issues, mindful of the danger of focusing too much on Mr Trump at the expense of what matters in voters' lives.

Thirty-five minutes into the debate, Mr Trump delivered his own one-word review. "BORING!" he tweeted.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2019, with the headline 'Warren holds her own in race for heart and soul of party'. Print Edition | Subscribe