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Democratic debate focuses on Trump, revives clashes over 'Medicare for All'

Updated: December 12, 2019 01:02 PM

The top Democratic presidential candidates are clashing over a "Medicare for All" plan to provide universal, government-run health insurance — again. However, they all agreed on the impeachment of President Trump.

"Let me make very clear that what this impeachment proceeding's about is really our democracy at stake," Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar said early in the debate. "This is a president that, not only with regard to his conduct with Ukraine, but every step of the way puts his own private interests, his own partisan interests, his own political interests, in front of our country's interests and this is wrong."

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Sen. Bernie Sanders was more blunt. "Sadly we have a president who's not only a pathological liar, he is likely the most corrupt president in the modern history of America. But we cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump because if we are you know what? We're going to lose the election."

Wednesday's tussle also included more squabbles over a program that some Democrats worry could alienate swing voters who are wary of fully government-run health care and fear it would be extraordinarily difficult to get through Congress. And yet, partly because it's one of the few areas where the field has clear ideological divides, Democratic primary contenders can't stop talking about it — and subjecting prime-time audiences to often collectively tying themselves in knots over the issue.

The debate came at a critical juncture for the Democratic Party — less than three months before the first voting contests and with big questions hanging over the front-runners. Some Democrats have grown worried about former Vice President Joe Biden's durability, while others fear that Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are too liberal to win a general election. Those concerns have prompted former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to launch a late bid for the nomination, with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg expected to jump in as well in the coming days.

Warren and Sanders, representing the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party, defended Medicare for All on Wednesday, with Sanders saying, "Some of the people up here think we should not take on the insurance agency," but adding, "I think now is the time."

Biden argued that many people are happy with the private insurance that comes through their employers.

Pete Buttigieg complained about others taking "the divisive step" of ordering people onto universal health care, "whether they like it or not."

The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was a prime target as the four candidates now bunched at the top of the polls seek to distinguish themselves. He was asked early about how being mayor of a city of 100,000 residents qualified him for the White House, and he said he was more than up to the challenge.

"I know that from the perspective of Washington, what goes on in my city might look small," he said. "But frankly, where we live, the infighting on Capitol Hill is what looks small."

Another early clash came between two candidates looking for big moments: Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who has criticized prominent Democrats, including 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton.

"I think that it's unfortunate that we have someone on the stage who is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for the president of the United States, who, during the Obama administration, spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama," Harris said.

"I'm not going to put party interests first," Gabbard retorted.

Medicare for All has dominated the primary — especially for Warren. She released plans to raise $20-plus trillion in new government revenue on universal health care. But she also said implementation of the program may take three years — drawing criticism both from moderates like Biden and Buttigieg, who think she's trying to distance herself from an unpopular idea, and Sanders supporters, who see the Massachusetts senator's commitment to "Medicare for All" wavering.

Klobuchar was also asked about her recent criticism of former Indiana Mayor Pete Buttegieg who soared to the top of the polls in Iowa despite having less political and policy experience than many women in the race.

"First of all, I made very clear I think Pete is qualified to be up on this stage and I am honored to be standing next to him," Klobuchar said. "But what I said was true. Women are held to a higher standard. Otherwise we could play a game 'name your favorite woman president' which we can't do because it has all been men, including all vice presidents being men. And I think any working woman out there. Any woman at home knows exactly what I mean we have to work harder and that's a fact."

Moments later Klobuchar added a line that was one of the biggest applause lines of the night. "And if you think a woman can't beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day."

The debate in Atlanta featured the cycle's first all-female moderator team.

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The Associated Press

(Copyright 2019 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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