Democrats’ Have A “Play Nice” Debate Night, Wary Of The Knife Fight Ahead

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There was a moment in the Democratic debate when candidates started to turn to the contender not on stage — Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire who is shattering records in campaign spending to the point where he is now a ubiquitous presence during TV commercial breaks.

“I guess is you’re worth $60 billion and you can spend several hundred million dollars on commercials, who can have a slight advantage,” Bernie Sanders said at one moment on Friday night. “That’s nonsense.”

Given that this debate has such consequence coming just days before the New Hampshire primary, the oddity was that the candidates who were on stage generally were nice to each other.

They attacked one another over certain policy proposals and aspects of their records, but they also didn’t take the bait at other more personal moments, as when they were asked to respond to Hillary Clinton’s quote that “nobody likes” Sanders, who has a very real shot at being the nominee. It was as if a rough week for Democrats in general made the candidates a bit more mindful of the moment, that voters are exhausted and even cynical and perhaps need a bit more reassurance that the party is even in a position to defeat Donald Trump. That doesn’t come from eating their own.

“No matter who wins this damn thing, we’re all going to stand together to defeat Donald Trump,” Sanders said.

Some of the candidates surely were mindful that this may be one of their last chances to break through. When the candidates were asked whether they thought Sanders’ “socialist” label was problematic, Amy Klobuchar was the first to time in. She also chided Buttigieg over his use of a common campaign tactic, running as a newcomer against Washington. Her best moment, though, was not her sharp lines against the campaign’s front runners, but her finish, when she made an impassioned case for her electability.

“I do not have the biggest name up on this stage. I don’t have the biggest bank account. I’m not a political newcomer with no record, but I have a record of fighting for people,” she said.

Warren also did well, bluntly answering, “No,” when asked by moderator Linsey Davis if Buttigieg had sufficiently answered a question as to why the rate of South Bend arrests of African Americans for marijuana possession went up, not down, when he was mayor. It was his weakest moment and her strongest.

Strangely enough, Joe Biden pretty much conceded New Hampshire at the outset, when he said that he would “probably take a hit” in the state on Tuesday. But he followed that up with a heavy dose of energy, as if trying to amp up a campaign by sheer force of oratory. And he created a tweet-out moment when he asked everyone in the audience to stand for Alexander Vindman, the lieutenant colonel who was ousted from the White House after testifying in the impeachment trial.

ABC News’s questions were generally on the mark, and the network wisely wound down the debate as it reached the 2 1/2 hour mark. It had been scheduled for three. Davis came prepared to for her moment with Mayor Pete, but the moderators also gave candidates some breathing room to answer questions.

This relatively genial, “play nice” atmosphere for a debate may not last long. If Sanders wins New Hampshire, there may be a greater sense of urgency within the party to stop him. If that happens, he may be more willing to be more biting in his attacks on other candidates and the party itself. After all, given the changes in rules, the next debate likely will feature that man of “nonsense,” Bloomberg. If it comes down to it, a Bernie vs. Bloomberg race may merely magnify the differences in the party rather than mend them.

PREVIOUSLY: Everyone knew that the moment was coming: Bernie Sanders would hit Pete Buttigieg for taking money from billionaires. Earlier on Friday, the Sanders campaign sent out an email tying Mayor Pete to the corporate elite.

“I don’t have 40 billionaires, Pete, contributing to my campaign,” Sanders said, pointing to Buttigieg.

Buttigieg noted that Donald Trump raised $25 million just “today,” and “we need to go into that fight with everything that we’ve got.”

“As the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or a billionaire, I know a thing or two about building a movement because mayor of South Bend, Indiana is not exactly an establishment fundraising powerhouse.”

PREVIOUSLY: When ABC News’ Linsey Davis asked Pete Buttigieg how he explained the increase in black arrests in South Bend for marijuana possession while he was mayor, he tried to argue that the “overall rate was lower.”

“No, there was an increase,” she said. The year before you were in office, it was lower. Once you were in office in 2012, the number went up. In 2018, the last year that we have a record for, that number was still up.”

He responded that they “adopted a strategy that said drug enforcement would be targeted in cases where there was a connection to the most violent group of gang connected to a murder.”

Then, Davis turned to Elizabeth Warren. “Senator Warren, is that a substantial answer from Mayor Buttigieg?”

Warren quickly responded, “No.”

That was a pretty stinging rebuke for Buttigieg, who has struggled to draw substantial support among African Americans.

PREVIOUSLY: Joe Biden paid tribute to Alexander Vindman, the lieutenant colonel who was removed from his White House post on Friday after testifying in the impeachment inquiry.

Biden said that President Donald Trump “should be pinning a medal on Vindman, and not on Rush Limbaugh.” That was a reference to Trump’s award of the Medal of Freedom to Limbaugh during this week’s State of the Union address, which triggered a furor of criticism from Democrats over the radio hosts incendiary comments.

Biden, his voice rising, then generated a debate moment when he called on the audience to recognize Vindman as well.

“I think we should all stand and give Col. Vindman a show of how much we support him. Stand up and clap for Vindman,” Biden said, before the debate audience did just that.

Vindman’s lawyer said that he was escorted from the White House, in a move widely seen as retribution from Trump following his Senate acquittal. Also removed from his post was Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who also testified in the impeachment inquiry.

PREVIOUSLY: The Democratic presidential debate quickly turned into a scrappy back-and-forth between the candidates on electability and, more specifically, whether Bernie Sanders, a Democratic socialist, or Pete Buttigieg, with a short political tenure as South Bend mayor, has a chance against Donald Trump.

Buttigieg said that the solution was not a candidate who is “dividing people” and taking the party “all the way to the edge,” and insisting that it is “my way or the highway.”

Asked by moderator George Stephanopoulos if he was talking about Sanders, Buttigieg responded with a blunt, “Yes.”

Sanders defended his policy platform, saying, in a louder tone than normal, “The way you bring people together is by presenting an agenda that works for the working people of this country and not the billionaire class.”

Buttigieg, gaining on Sanders in New Hampshire polls, also was the focus of criticism. Amy Klobuchar chided him for bashing Washington while she and other senators were engaged in impeachment proceedings. She said that while figures like Doug Jones, Mitt Romney and Alexander Vindman showed political courage, Buttigieg said that the proceedings were “exhausting to watch” and that he wanted “to turn the channel and watch cartoons.”

She also said that Buttigieg’s inexperience was a risk.
“We have a newcomer in the White House and look where it got us,” she said.
When the candidates were asked if they thought that Sanders’ “socialist” label was of concern in facing off with Trump, Klobuchar was the first senator to chime in and suggest it would.
Joe Biden, looking to revive his campaign, acknowledged at the outset that “I took a hit in Iowa, and I’ll probably take a hit here,” before identifying what he sees as liabilities of his rivals: Buttigieg, he said, has yet to show he can garner broad support across demographic groups; Sanders, he said, is proposing a Medicare for All plan with out-of-control costs.
Sanders hit Biden on his 2002 vote that authorized President George W. Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. “Like Joe and others, I also heard the arguments in terms of war in Iraq from Bush, from Cheney, from John Bolton, the whole administration. I listened very carefully and I concluded they were lying through their teeth.”
As critical as the leading candidates were of each other, they avoided more personal attacks. For instance, Buttigieg defended Biden and his son Hunter, even as Republicans have tried to tarnish them during the impeachment proceedings.
When asked of Hillary Clinton’s criticism that “nobody like” Sanders, Biden gave him a hug, and Klobuchar said, “I like Bernie just fine.” Sanders also kept it cool, saying, “Our job is to look forward and not back to 2016. I hope that Secretary Clinton and all of us can come together and move in that direction.”

The stakes on Friday could not be higher, particularly since the Iowa caucus debacle did little to winnow the field, giving campaigns another shot at defining the race. With 100% of precincts counted in the Hawkeye State, Buttigieg and Sanders are in a virtual tie. The Associated Press and other news outlets have declined to declare a winner, citing inconsistencies that they have spotted in examining the results.

The was ABC News’ second debate this cycle, having already sponsored an event in September. Apple News and WMUR-TV were co-sponsors.

The pre-New Hampshire debates have a history of producing impactful moments. In 2008, Barack Obama’s comment that Hillary Clinton was “likable enough” was seen as a bit arrogant, leading to her surprise victory in the primary three days later. In 2016, Marco Rubio’s robotic responses to Chris Christie’s attacks damaged Rubio’s chances in the primary. Stephanopoulos talked of pre-debate buzz that this event could be the most consequential one yet.


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