ATLANTA (CN) — Hours after significant testimony in the impeachment inquiry against President Trump, the 10 top-polling Democratic presidential candidates convened in Atlanta Wednesday evening for the fifth primary debate while focusing on the president and broader issues.
While the current front-runners – former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg –jockeyed for the top position, candidates with waning poll numbers searched for a breakthrough moment.
Without pausing for opening statements, moderator Rachel Maddow began Wednesday's debate by immediately launching into questions about the U.S. House of Representatives' impeachment inquiry.
Warren – who will join California Senator Kamala Harris, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Sanders as a juror in the Senate if President Donald Trump is impeached in the House – affirmed that she would vote to impeach the president and launched into an attack on U.S. ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, who testified today, for securing his post via a million-dollar donation.
Hours before the debate, Sondland gave testimony linking President Trump to a "quid pro quo" to announce Ukrainian investigations into former Biden in exchange for release of military aid funding and a White House meeting.
"This is not a man who had any qualification except one: he wrote a check for a million dollars," Warren said.
"Anybody that gives me a pledge - don't ask to be an ambassador," she added.
In response to a question about how central the impeachment inquiry should be to the candidates' campaigns, Sanders called the president a "pathological liar" but warned that "we cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump or else we'll lose the election."
He said that the American people understand Congress can "walk and chew bubblegum at the same time" and said that candidates "have to stand up for the working people of this country" while also dealing with "Trump's corruption."
When debate moderator Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent, asked Biden how he planned to work with Republicans in Congress who are calling for investigations into him and his son, the former vice president touted his moderate appeal and said he would focus on securing and maintaining a Democratic majority in Congress.
Later in the debate, he said that it would be up to his attorney general pick to decide whether to prosecute President Trump.
"We have to restore the soul of this country," Biden said. "Follow the law, let the Justice Department make the judgment as to whether or not someone should be prosecuted, period."
Warren agreed with the need to focus on unity and civility and pivoted to a pitch for her proposed 2 cent wealth tax on Americans with a net worth of over $50 million.
"We want to build an America that works for the people, not just for rich folks," she said, promising that the tax would pay for progressive programs like student debt cancellation, free college tuition and universal Pre-K.
Warren's proposal left an opening for Sen. Booker to begin an exchange about income inequality across class and racial lines. Booker criticized Warren's plan, saying that he feels Democrats should be fighting harder for a "just taxation system."
"We have to talk about how to grow wealth," Booker said.
Given the location of Wednesday's event, the moderators brought up voting and abortion rights minutes before the debate was scheduled to end.
Georgia's 2018 gubernatorial election between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp was plagued by disputes over the counting of absentee and provisional ballots and historic voter purges. Abrams lost the race by a margin of 50,000 votes.
Multiple lawsuits were filed leading up to Election Day and a federal judge eventually ordered state officials to implement a new voting system before the 2020 election.
In July 2017, Georgia canceled 534,119 voter registrations in the largest single removal of voters in U.S. history.
The Peach State also passed one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country earlier this year, making it almost impossible for women to get an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. A federal judge temporarily blocked enforcement of the law in October.
“If voter suppression were nothing but the myth Republicans claim it to be, Governor Stacey Abrams would’ve taken her veto pen to Georgia’s ‘heartbeat’ abortion bill the day it arrived at her desk,” Booker said.
Referencing Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards' reelection last week, an anti-abortion Democrat who signed a similarly restrictive abortion law last year, moderator Rachel Maddow asked Warren if there is room for people like Edwards in the party.
Warren avoided answering the question directly but confirmed her support for abortion rights as "human rights."
When pressed for an answer, Warren said, "I’m not here to drive anyone out of this party. I’m not here to build fences."
The most heated exchange of the night came when Harris attacked Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard for her claim that the Democratic Party is unduly influenced by the "foreign policy establishment represented by Hillary Clinton."
"It is unfortunate that we have someone on this stage that is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for the president of the United States who during the Obama administration has spent four years full-time on Fox News criticizing President Obama," Harris said.
Gabbard protested, saying, "That's ridiculous."
Gabbard also butted heads with fellow veteran Buttigieg over his alleged inexperience. Gabbard referenced a "careless statement" recently made by Buttigieg that he wanted to use the U.S. military to fight Mexican drug cartels, a claim he denied and called "outlandish."
Buttigieg fired back, saying that he might not have extensive Washington experience but has good judgment and "would not have sat down with a murderous dictator," referring to Gabbard's January 2017 meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad.
Biden, who maintains his lead in most national polls despite major gains in Iowa and New Hampshire for Buttigieg, had the last word Wednesday evening as candidates gave their closing statements:
“Get up. Let’s take back this country and lead the world again, it’s within our power to do it. Get up and take it back," he said.
The sixth Democratic primary debate will be held at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles on Dec. 19 and is co-hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico.
Six candidates have already qualified for the Los Angeles debate: Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren.