HOUSTON (CN) – The much anticipated three-way showdown between Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders dominated the start of the third Democratic debate Thursday night, putting the clear ideological split among the front-runners on full display with the top polling candidates on stage for the first time of the primary season.
But the nearly three hour-long debate also gave emerging candidates a chance to take on their fellow 2020 Democratic rivals, as well as a prime time audience to test out fierce jabs at President Donald Trump that will play out through the general election.
Biden, the former vice president who has remained the top pick for Democrats since January, quickly found himself the target of the nine other candidates onstage looking to breakthrough to voters. He was forced to defend his record on health care, gun control, race relations in America and his 2003 vote to authorize the Iraq War, while issues including immigration, criminal justice and international trade were also debated.
Remaining on defense mode throughout the night, Biden found himself in testy exchanges with former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, a former San Antonio mayor and the last candidate to qualify for the September debate, drawing audible reactions from the audience at Houston’s Texas Southern University.
Biden took the first shot of the night at his two closest rivals, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, accusing the two liberal senators of not being upfront with the true costs of their health care plans.
“I know that the senator says she’s for Bernie, well I’m for Barack,” Biden said singling out Warren. “I think the Obamacare worked. I think the way we add to it, replace everything that’s been cut, add a public option, guarantee that everyone will be able to have affordable insurance, number one.”
Warren and many of the other Democrats onstage praised President Barack Obama’s signature health care plan. The Massachusetts senator said the “richest individuals and the richest corporations are going to pay more,” while middle class families will pay less under her plan, though she declined to answer directly whether middle class families would see a tax increase.
“You’ve got to defend the fact that 500,000 Americans are going bankrupt,” Sanders told Biden, saying that his health care plan would put people “into financial ruin because they suffered a diagnosis of cancer.”
Biden quickly hit back.
“I know a lot about cancer. Let me tell you something, it’s personal to me” he said. “Let me tell you something, every single person who’s diagnosed with cancer or any other disease can automatically become part of this plan. They will not go bankrupt because of that.”
The ten top-polling Democratic candidates are locked in a battle for the party’s nomination at a time when a series of polls nationwide, and in ruby red Texas, show an increasingly competitive general election contest.
The ten candidates participating in Thursday’s debate, hosted by ABC News in partnership with Univision, appeared on stage in the following order, from left to right: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sanders, Biden, Warren, California Sen. Kamala Harris, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, and Castro.
Ten other Democrats did not make the narrowed-down debate stage Thursday night, including Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and progressive billionaire Tom Steyer.
Castro jumped into the debate swinging at Biden, first criticizing an aspect of Biden’s health care plan before going after his embrace of the Obama administration only when it was convenient for him. Biden on Thursday debuted a campaign ad featuring Obama.
“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago,” Castro said to Biden of his health care plan, which Castro said requires individuals to buy into in order to be covered. “I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you’re saying that they don’t have to buy in. You’re forgetting that.”
“I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama and you’re not,” Castro added.
“That’ll be a surprise to him,” Biden said.
The exchange prompted other candidates onstage to reprimand Castro for his approach.
“This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington,” Buttigieg said to Castro.
“That’s called an election, Pete,” Castro quickly quipped.
When the topic moved over to foreign affairs and the ongoing wars overseas, Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said American troops were no longer necessary in Afghanistan, but opened himself up for criticism after admitting he was wrong to vote to support the war in Iraq in 2003.
Sanders seized the moment to distinguish himself from Biden, saying one of the big differences between the two leading Democrats in the field of 20 was that he “never believed what Cheney and Bush said about Iraq.”
“I voted against the war in Iraq and helped lead the opposition,” the Vermont senator said.
Sanders, who lost the nomination in 2016 to Hillary Clinton, went on to say he is the only candidate onstage to vote against all three of Trump’s military budgets. He said he was against spending $750 billion a year on the military “when we don’t even know who our enemy is.”
“I think what we’ve got to do is bring this world together. Bring it together on climate change, bring it together in fighting against terrorism and making clear that we as a planet, as a global community will work together to help countries around the world rebuild their struggling economies and do everything we can to rid the world of terrorism,” Sanders said.
Yang pledged to end what he called “the forever wars” and said he would lead the military as president “with restraint and judgment.”
“What the American people want is simply a president who has the right values and point of view and they can trust to make the right decisions when it comes to putting our young men and women in harms way,” Yang said.
Biden, clearly on defense mode, was also forced to defend the Obama administration’s failure to see a bill to expand background checks through the Senate in the wake of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 26 people, including 20 children were killed.
Sen. Kamala Harris steered away of the Biden pile-on; her debate plan was clear: criticize President Donald Trump at all opportunities. She pulled no punches in her opening statements, forgoing shots at her Democratic rivals to go after Trump in a made-for-social media moment that left even her onstage opponents applauding.
“You’ve spent the last two and a half years full-time trying to sew hate and division among us and that is why we’ve got nothing done,” Harris said, staring directly into the camera. “You have used hate, intimidation, fear and over 12,000 lies as a way to distract from your failed policies and your broken promises. The only reason you’ve not been indicted is because there was a memo in the Department of Justice that says a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime.”
The ten Democratic candidates were largely united when it came to gun control, heaping praise on O’Rourke for his response to last month’s deadly mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart that targeted the Latino community.
“Beto, God love you,” Harris said.
“Hell yes, we’re going to take away your AR-15s, your AK-47s,” he said when the topic was raised to one of the largest applauses of the night. “We’re not going to allow them to be used against Americans anymore.”
Outside the debate hall, Trump’s re-election campaign flew a 4,800 square feet banner that read: “Vote Trump 2020: Socialism Will Kill Houston’s Economy.”
“Every single Democrat candidate has job killing, economy crushing policies that won’t work for America,” said Erin Perrine, Trump campaign deputy communications director. “Team Trump is here to remind them and let everyone in Houston know what a complete disaster Democrats are for America.”
Security was tight at the historically black university’s campus as a group of students queued to get into the debate hall hours before the event, fanning themselves in the 94 degree humid heat. Dozens of law enforcement officers from five different agencies looked on warily, checking people for their credentials, while camouflage-clad men peered down at passersby from the rooftops.
With a band singing the chorus to their song “CNN Sucks” in the background, TSU junior Myles Henson said education is one of the most important issues to him.
Asked about several of the candidates’ support for tuition-free higher education, the 21-year-old maritime transportation major said, “I don’t know about free. But it definitely needs to be cheaper. And in terms of the payback system it’s got to be different because when people are getting $100,000 in debt and then they’re getting jobs that don’t even pay half that, how are you going to pay that back?”
Henson said he supports Yang. “I like his stance on everything. I think the Freedom Dividend would allow for a lot of flexibility with everyone,” he said of Yang’s plan for the government to give a monthly income of $1,000 to every American over 18.
Ricardo Mireles and David Hardy stood in an area fenced off by metal barriers, next to their banners laid out on the pavement stating, “Salvemos Nuestros Escuelas Charter” and “Charter Schools Self Determination.”
Hardy said he founded Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia. Now retired, Hardy said the charter school sends more black students to college than any in Pennsylvania.
“We came down here because a lot of these candidates have a very anti-charter message and we’re wondering why. Because we know that for African-American and Latino children you’re better off with a charter school,” he said.
Many of the Democratic candidates are against allocating any federal education funds to charter schools and want it all to go to state-run public schools.
Ricardo Mireles, founder of Academia Avance Charter School in Los Angeles, said that position is misleading because charter schools are also public; they are just operated independently of states.
“The money is allocated to the kids,” Mireles said. “And if the kid is choosing to go to that school that’s where the money goes. So they just did a quick switcheroo on you like, ‘You’re taking money away from the schools.’ No they’re not. They’re giving money to where it’s supposed to go – the kids.”
The fourth Democratic primary debate will be held Oct. 15 in Ohio, with a second night of debates scheduled for Oct. 16 if there are more than 10 qualifying candidates.