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Candidates slam Trump at Democratic debate, but fight over racial issues, health care

NBC News logo NBC News 6/28/2019 Alex Seitz-Wald
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MIAMI — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and other candidates tore into President Donald Trump on Thursday night at the Democratic presidential debate, but they also clashed sharply with each other over race, health care and other issues.

Sanders blasted Trump as a "phony, a pathological liar and a racist," vowing to "expose him for the fraud he is," while Biden said he would roll back the president's tax cuts benefiting the wealthy. Biden slammed Trump for, as he put it, thinking Wall Street built America.

The opening jabs of the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate came as many candidates in the sprawling 2020 field took shots directly at the president, who wasn't mentioned often at the first night of the debate on Wednesday by 10 of the other Democratic hopefuls.

Harris, D-Calif., also hit Trump at the start of the debate, saying because of his tax cuts the economy "is not working for working people."

She used a question about how she would pay for her own plans to rip Trump and congressional Republicans for passing a massive tax cut plan and claiming, despite the evidence, that it would pay for itself.

"I hear that question, but where was that question when the Republicans and Donald Trump passed tax bill?" Harris said.

And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said Trump's impact was more than just political.

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"One of the worst things that President Trump has done to this country is he's torn apart the moral fabric of who we are," he said.

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Sanders, meanwhile, said he would dramatically raise taxes on the rich and acknowledged they'd go up for the middle class, too, to fund his Medicare for All plan.

"Yes, they will pay more in taxes, but they will pay less for health care than what they get now," Sanders said.

All eyes Thursday night are on frontrunner Biden, but it was little-known Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who took the first big swing at the field's leader.

Swalwell brought up a speech Biden decades ago in which he called on the older generation of leaders to pass the torch to a new generation.

"Joe Biden was right when he said we need to pass the torch," Swalwell said, drawing howls and shouts from the debate audience.

"I’m still holding onto that torch," Biden, 76, responded, before arguing his experience would help him implement the policies many of them agree on. "We all talk about these things. I did it."

Biden took plenty of incoming fire on a wide range of issues.

Even Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a moderate generally aligned with Biden on policy, joined the pile on. He went after the former vice president's core strength — his purported ability to negotiate with Republicans — saying Biden cut "a terrible deal" with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to raise the debt ceiling under the Obama administration.

And several candidates clashed on health care.

While all agreed on the principle of universal coverage, only Sanders and Harris raised their hands when asked who would be willing to eliminate private insurance and replace it with a single-payer government plan.

Former Vice President Joe Biden defends his record on racial issues as Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Kamala Harris listen during the second night of the first U.S. Democratic presidential candidates 2020 election debate in Miami, Florida, U.S., June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar © Reuters Former Vice President Joe Biden defends his record on racial issues as Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Kamala Harris listen during the second night of the first U.S. Democratic presidential candidates 2020 election debate in Miami, Florida, U.S., June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar

"I'm against any Democrat who wants to take down Obamacare," Biden said, taking an implicit shot at Sanders, would replace Obamacare with a single-payer plan.

Biden, along with Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said they would provide health care to undocumented immigrants, which the Affordable Care Act does not.

"You cannot let people who are sick — no matter where they came from, no matter their status — go uncovered…it's not humane," Biden said.

In a sign of how far the Democratic Party has moved to the left to immigration, most of the candidates' hands, including Biden's, went up when asked if they would support decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings.

And they slammed Trump and the Republicans for the crackdown on migrants, with former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper saying the administration's family separation policy amounted to "kidnapping."

"For a party that associates itself with Christianity," Buttigieg said, "to suggest that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claims to use religious language ever again."

And some candidates, including Swalwell, said they would not deport migrants for unauthorized border crossing along.

A particularly raw conversation broke out on race between Harris and Biden.

It started with Buttigieg, who acknowledged problems in South Bend's police department, where a white police officer recently shot and killed a black man and reignited lingering tensions. "I couldn’t get it done," Buttigieg said of healing the racial divide, adding that his city is "hurting."

Then Harris jumped in.

"As the only black person on stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race," Harris began, before unloading on Biden for recently touting how he was able to work with two segregationist senators in the Senate decades ago.

"It was personal...actually, it was hurtful," Harris, a former prosecutor, said, casting a steely gaze at the former vice president.

Biden first defended himself: "She mischaracterized my position across the board." Then fired back: "I was a public defender, I did not become a prosecutor."

He went on to tout his civil rights record in the Senate. But Harris did not back down, pressing Biden to apologize for his past opposition to busing to integrate schools, noting she was in one of the first classes to integrate as a child.

Biden declined to apologize but ticked through his long record advancing and defending civil rights legislation — before awkwardly cutting himself off when he exhausted his allotted time. “My time's up. I'm sorry."

When the conversation turned to foreign policy, several candidates said China was the primary geopolitical rival to the United States, but entrepreneur Andrew Yang said it was the Russians, who are "laughing their asses off" after interfering in the 2016 election to help Trump.

Self-help writer Marianne Williamson said Trump has "harnessed fear" to promote his agenda and that the only way to fight him would be to "harness love," which is what she intends to do.

Hickenlooper warned the party's leftward drift would be disastrous for not just the party, but the country. "If we turn towards socialism, we run the risk of helping to reelect the worst president in American history," he said.

The Thursday night face off comes after the first night of the debate on Wednesday, which featured 10 other candidates in the race, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Cory Booker, D-N.J, and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro.

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