Frontrunner Joe Biden faced withering criticism on multiple fronts Thursday from his Democratic rivals for the 2020 presidential nomination, including calls to leave the battle to oust Donald Trump to a younger generation.
In a sometimes scrappy battle of the Democratic heavyweights, Senator Kamala Harris landed several blows on Biden in a nationally televised debate, putting the former vice president on the defensive as he argued that he is best-positioned to take on the Republican president in an election.
Biden blasted Trump for his “horrible” policies that have exacerbated income inequality, while his chief rival for the nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders, took it directly to the “phony” president, calling him “a pathological liar and a racist.”
But it was the 76-year-old Biden, back on the debate stage for the first time in seven years, who found himself under an unexpectedly sharp and early attack from a lower-tier candidate half his age.
Congressman Eric Swalwell, 38, called on the former vice president to “pass the torch” to a new generation of party leaders better equipped to tackle climate change, expand health care coverage, and reduce gun violence.
“I’m still holding on to that torch,” Biden snapped back.
Several rivals were clearly seeking to wrench it from his grip, including Harris, the only black woman in the race, who made a stirring call for Biden to recognize his recent “hurtful” comments about being civil with avowedly segregationist US senators.
Biden, with the room dead quiet, insisted he does not “praise racists,” and denied he opposed initiatives in the 1970s to bus children from predominantly black communities to better schools in more prosperous neighborhoods.
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed to school every day,” Harris said, in one of the evening’s most potent moments.
“That little girl was me.”
– ‘We are hurting’ –
Another candidate in the upper tier, Pete Buttigieg, has also been on the back foot on racial issues. The 37-year-old mayor has been grappling with furious residents in his city of South Bend, Indiana, following the fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer.
“When I look into his mother’s eyes, I have to face the fact that nothing that I say will bring him back,” Buttigieg said, adding that such tragedies are happening in communities across America.
“It’s a mess. We are hurting.”
Biden jousted with nine rivals on the climactic second night of a sprawling debate featuring Democrats eager to introduce themselves to a national audience.
With so many potential challengers to Trump, the party needed to split the top 20 candidates into debates on two nights in southern Florida, a key swing state in next year’s election.
Thursday’s session featured four of the race’s top five candidate in national polling, including Biden’s main challenger Sanders, the 77-year-old US senator whose high-spending policies like universal healthcare have pushed the party leftward in recent years.
The top tier also includes Harris and Buttigieg, who shot to prominence earlier this year but has seen that momentum tail off.
Biden endured attacks not just from the new generation but from the old guard. When Biden, questioned about his Senate vote in support of the Iraq war, insisted that he took responsibility for getting 150,000 combat troops out of Iraq, Sanders pounced.
“Joe voted for that war, and I helped lead the opposition to that war, which was a total disaster.”
Biden, seeking a recovery in his closing remarks, called for restoration of “the “soul of the country. This president has ripped it out.”
“We have got to unite the United States of America,” he added.
All candidates savaged Trump for his immigration policy, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand who said the president had “torn apart our moral fabric” by separating children.
Author Marianne Williamson, a surprise presidential candidate, offered a more scathing rebuke, likening the policies to “kidnapping” and child abuse.
“These are state-sponsored crimes,” she said.
When all candidates raised their hand supporting undocumented immigrants’ access to health care, Trump himself weighed in from Japan, where he is attending the G20 summit.
In a tweet he accused Democrats of supporting “giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first!?”
Candidates savaged Trump on taxes, health care and income inequality, while debate also addressed whether the party should embrace a shift towards more liberal politics and government involvement in the economy on issues like health care and climate change.
Third place Elizabeth Warren, the rising star progressive US senator, was on Wednesday’s stage, where she called out disparities in wealth and income and pledged to work to improve the lives of struggling working class families.
Sanders, a democratic socialist, covered the same ground Thursday, but he also acknowledged that, in a shift to his Medicare for All platform, Americans would have to pay more taxes.
US Democratic presidential hopefuls (from L) author Marianne Williamson, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg, former vice president Joseph R. Biden, US Senator Bernie Sanders, US Senator Kamala Harris, US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, US Senator Michael Bennet, congressman Eric Swalwell, participate in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season, in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019
Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator Kamala Harris (R) had a breakout moment in the Democratic primary debate on June 27, 2019 when she criticized frontrunner Joe Biden (L) on his stance on race-related issues
Democratic presidential hopefuls (from L) Senator Cory Booker, Senator Elizabeth Warren and former congressman Beto O’Rourke participate in the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign