MIAMI — Standing elbow-to-elbow on a crowded debate stage Wednesday, ten of the Democratic candidates seeking to take on President Trump got a simple question from a moderator: Would they raise their hands if they wanted to abolish private health care in favor of a government-run system?
Only two candidates did so: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. “I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All,” Warren said, referring to Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont and rival on the campaign trail.
It was the perfect moment for one of the other Democratic candidates to directly criticize her for embracing a position that some have shied away from as too much too fast, to cast her as too liberal to beat Trump. Not a single one took the opportunity.
Instead, Warren was allowed to dominate the crowded debate with her policy ideas, giving an energetic performance that seemed to leave voters with two options. Do they want her transformative proposals, which would essentially remake the American economy? Or will they favor the more incremental change embodied on stage by such candidates as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker or Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota?
It was the first act of a two-night, 20-candidate spectacle that will introduce millions of Americans to the choir of Democrats seeking to take on Trump, and Warren seemed to float above the fray, while lesser-known candidates tangled with each other instead of her.
During the first half of the debate, moderators ticked off the policy plans that have formed the spine of Warren’s campaign and gave her so much time to speak early on that Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard registered a complaint from her Twitter account.
Warren easily distilled the tenets of six months of campaigning into the 60-second time slots set by moderators trying to keep control over the crowded stage, using them to lay out her vision to imbue American life with new taxes and extensive government regulations.
“When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple,” Warren said, as the audience applauded. “We need to call it out.”
Meanwhile the candidates trying to climb up from the bottom of the polls talked over each other, traded barbs, and even tangled with the moderators in an attempt to blurt out a few extra words during their precious few moments on screen, giving parts of the evening a freewheeling feel that highlighted the more chaotic elements of a primary bursting with candidates.
Yet their extended exchanges on topics such as health care reform and immigration underscored that the party is far from agreed on the issues that will likely dominate next year’s contest with Trump.
Warren’s endorsement of Medicare for All — a marquee idea from Sanders that she has previously seemed reluctant to fully embrace — brought the candidates’ differences on health care into sharp relief, even if the other contenders avoided criticizing her personally.
“What they’re really telling you is they just won’t fight for it,” Warren said of candidates who failed to back the sweeping measure. “Health care is a basic human right and I will fight for basic human rights.”
But later, Klobuchar, who has cast herself as the Midwestern pragmatist of the race, said she had reservations about the proposal.
“I am just simply concerned about kicking half of Americans off their health insurance in just four years,” Klobuchar said.
And Trump himself was rarely mentioned, with candidates focused more on revealing details of their biographies and their ideas to transform the country.
It was the first presidential debate stage to ever hold so many women — a point Klobuchar wryly emphasized when Jay Inslee touted his efforts to protect abortion rights as the governor of Washington state.
“There are three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” Klobuchar said.
Every candidate seemed to have a different goal onstage, giving the debate an awkward friction at times.
For former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke, it was an attempt to recapture the buzz he generated when he entered the race earlier this year after narrowly losing a Senate race to incumbent Republican Ted Cruz. O’Rourke started the debate by speaking in Spanish, and tried to use soaring rhetoric to describe his immigration plan, saying “We should not build walls, we should not put kids in cages.”
But he was interrupted by former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro, who has staked his candidacy on the issue of immigration and has called for the repeal of part of a federal law that criminalizes migration.
“If you did your homework on this issue, you would know we should repeal that section,” Castro told O’Rourke as Warren’s head flitted back and forth between the fellow Texans arguing on both sides of her.
With several of the race’s upper-tier candidates — including former vice president Joe Biden, California Senator Kamala Harris, and Sanders — clustered on Thursday night, Wednesday’s debate felt like something of an opening act.
But that gave Warren, who has been steadily rising in the polls, an opening to show off her policy ideas without the temptation of tangling with her most imposing rivals. She stood in the center of the stage, flanked byBooker and O’Rourke.
The moderators asked other candidates about her plan to break up big tech companies.
When they asked her if she was picking winners and losers in the American economy, she did not deny it.
“There is way too much consolidation now in giant industries in this country,” Warren said. “What’s been missing is courage. Courage in Washington to take on the giants.”
But they also pressed her on whether she had a plan to implement all of her proposals — especially given inevitable opposition from the likely Senate majority leader come 2021, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“I do,” Warren said, letting some of her precious seconds tick away as she grinned.
“We have to push from the outside, have leadership from the inside, and make this Congress reflect the will of the people,” Warren said.
Candidates repeatedly declined to go after Warren, despite multiple assists from the moderators. At one point, Booker insisted he did not disagree with Warren even after moderator Savannah Guthrie read his words criticizing her plan to break up tech giants out loud to him.
When Guthrie asked the more centrist Klobuchar whether her rivals’ plans are too ambitious and are misleading voters. Klobuchar passed, instead blasting Trump for sitting in the White House and doing nothing about inequality — although she later took a subtle jab at the bevy of proposals that had come up on stage.
“I don’t make all the promises that everyone else can make,” she said. “But I can promise you this, I’m going to govern with integrity.”
The lesser candidates squeezed at the sides of the stage attempted to interject at any chance they could, hoping for a viral moment. At one point, de Blasio yelled “wait a minute!” as Guthrie was cutting to a commercial. Moderator Rachel Maddow had to shush former representative John Delaney, who attempted to interject from the far right of the stage.
The Democrats attempted other ways to stand out. Booker and O’Rourke broke out their Spanish, Inslee claimed the distinction of being the only candidate who had passed a law with a health care public option in it, and Gabbard boosted her military credentials.
Warren took a pass when asked if she believes the federal government should play a role in getting rid of some of the millions of guns already owned by people. “We need to treat it like a serious research problem, which we have not done,” Warren said, adding that there’s a difference between a collector who has guns and people selling them on the streets.
Booker went further, calling for licenses for gun ownership and later returned to his main campaign themes of love and unity.
“I will beat him by calling this country to a sense of common purpose,” Booker said of Trump. “This is a referendum on him, getting rid of him, but it’s also a referendum on us.’’
Trump, however, suggested he had loftier concerns than the first in a caravan of Democratic debates.
“Sorry, I’m on Air Force One, off to save the Free World!” Trump tweeted before leaving for Japan for meetings with world leaders.
But he was clearly watching: He tweeted “BORING!” 35 minutes into the debate.