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Warren becomes debate target as moderates vie for breakout

At Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate in Ohio, attacks on Sen. Elizabeth Warren started early and came from all sides, particularly from more moderate voices. But the candidates did agree on one thing: support for the impeachment inquiry. Yamiche Alcindor reports, then Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Stuart Rothenberg of Inside Elections join Amna Nawaz to look at key moments.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    We turn now to the Democratic presidential race.

    Twelve candidates faced off in a sometimes heated debate last night in Westerville, Ohio.

    Yamiche Alcindor was there and is back now with this report.

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.:

    I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The attacks on Senator Elizabeth Warren started early and came from all sides.

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar:

    You can't say you're for corporate responsibility if it doesn't apply to everyone.

  • Joseph Biden:

    Senator Warren said we can't be running any vague campaigns. We have got to level with people.

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    Sometimes, I think that senator Warren is more focused on being punitive or pitting some part of the country against the other, instead of lifting people up and making sure that this country comes together around those solutions.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    I'm really shocked at the notion that anyone thinks I'm punitive.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    For months, the Massachusetts senator has been gradually rising in the polls. So when she again declined to go into detail about the cost of her Medicare for all plan:

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren:

    So, let me be clear on this. Costs will go up for the wealthy. They will go up for big corporations. And for middle-class families, they will go down.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Some of the more moderate voices on the stage pounced.

    That included Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar:

    The difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything, except this.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In past debates, Buttigieg mostly stayed away from direct confrontation. But, last night, he launched to several sharp back-and forths.

  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii:

    What is an endless war if it's not a regime change war?

  • Anderson Cooper:

    Allow him to respond.

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    Respectfully, Congresswoman, I think that is dead wrong.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That included exchanges with Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard over U.S. policy in Syria.

    He also sparked on gun policy with former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke.

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    To do what's right.

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    I don't need lessons from you on courage, political or personal.

    Everyone on the stage is determined to get something done.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The candidates did agree on one critical issue.

  • Andrew Yang:

    I support impeachment.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Their support for the impeachment inquiry facing President Trump.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    He has committed crimes in plain sight.

  • Julian Castro:

    He should be removed.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Last night also marked included billionaire Tom Steyer's first time on the debate stage. He has been pushing to impeach President Trump for the past two years.

  • Tom Steyer:

    Impeaching and removing this president is something that the American people are demanding.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Tremendous corruption with Biden.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Also a big topic, President Trump accusing former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter of corrupt business dealings in Ukraine.

    Those unproven claims helped spark the impeachment inquiry.

  • Joseph Biden:

    My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Biden defended his family, and went on the offensive.

  • Joseph Biden:

    The president and his thugs have already proven that they, in fact, are flat lying. What we have to do now is focus on Donald Trump.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Biden also criticized the president's decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Northern Syria. That decision allowed Turkey to launch an attack against the Kurds, who helped the U.S. fight ISIS.

  • Joseph Biden:

    We have an erratic, crazy president who knows not a damn thing about foreign policy and operates out of fear for his own reelection.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    New Jersey Senator Cory Booker joined in.

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    So, first of all, understand that this president is turning the moral leadership of this country into a dumpster fire.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It was also the first debate since Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders suffered a heart attack two weeks ago.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    We are going to be mounting a vigorous campaign all over this country.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Sanders announced a rally in New York this coming weekend.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders:

    We're going to have a special guest at that event.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That special guest is New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She's a member of the so-called Squad of four liberal congresswomen. She and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan are expected to join Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in endorsing Sanders.

    An aide to the senator told "NewsHour" Sanders hopes to also get the endorsement of the last member of the Squad, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, will last night's debate change the presidential race?

    For some post-game analysis, I'm here with two "NewsHour" regulars, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and host of public radio's "Politics With Amy Walter," and Stu Rothenberg, senior editor for Inside Elections.

    And welcome to you both.

    Three hours of debate last night.

    If there was one candidate, Amy, who everyone else had their sights trained on, it was Senator Elizabeth Warren.

  • Amy Walter:

    It was.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How did that go for her?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, she was, I think, every — she was the target, I think, of every single person on that stage.

    We saw the clips about Medicare for all, which was a big component of the attacks, on how her plan would get paid for, which is — her plan is actually Bernie Sanders' plan.

    But she was also attacked for sort of her my way or the highway approach, that her plan to — even her plan to break up big tech was criticized by Andrea Yang.

    So it was pretty clear that she's seen now as, if not the front-runner, at least a co-front-runner, with Joe Biden. But I think she handled it pretty well. There wasn't a moment in which you thought, boy, that was a pretty terrible answer or she looks really rattled.

    There's no doubt that her opponents and press coverage is going to continue to focus on her answer on how to pay for this Medicare for all plan. That's not going away. How she responds to it over time, I think, may change.

    So that was probably her least impressive moment. But, overall, I thought it was pretty good.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Stu, what did you make of that?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Same.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That Medicare for all moment, that — she took a lot of heat for that, not really answering the question.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Yes, she did. She ducked the question. And it was asked of her two or three times. And she kept ducking.

    I kind of felt like she fell off the horse, but she got back on it pretty quickly, unlike Kamala Harris. If you remember, in the second debate, when Harris was attacked very early in the debate, she kind of disappeared for the rest of the debate.

    Not in this case with Elizabeth martin. She was as feisty as ever, as aggressive as ever, as ever defending herself.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That whole fight over Medicare for all and some of the differences that were obvious in that conversation last night, you have talked about this before, some of the fundamental choices that are within the Democratic Party right now.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Were any of those reconciled last night?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    No, but I kind of feel like we're coming to a head here, a critical point, an inflection point maybe, whereby Democrats are going to have to choose.

    Do they want a populist progressive, like Sanders, or more likely Warren, or do they want somebody who's progressive, but isn't so — isn't so — is pragmatic, it's not my way or the highway?

    And this is a decision I think we have been waiting for, for months already. And it kind of felt like last night like we're getting to the point where Democrats are going to start making those choices, other choices too. Do they want an older candidate or a younger candidate?

    Do they want somebody with D.C. experience or more of an outsider? These are the critical choices we have been waiting for them to make. I think they're on the cusp of starting to make those choices.

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right, now that we're getting closer and closer to the fall, right?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Yes.

  • Amy Walter:

    Or we're in the fall.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amy Walter:

    To the end of the fall now. I'm not admitting it yet.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amy Walter:

    But, yes, now that we're getting closer and closer to when people actually start voting.

    And I think Stu is right. There's always been these two lanes right now, this sort of pragmatic, in the form of Joe Biden, which is the return to normalcy, right? Let's just kind of go back to where we were with Obama, get rid of Trump, that's our first priority, vs. the big structural change of Warren and Sanders.

    But what Pete Buttigieg did yesterday was — and he's been building this case for a while — is, he said, well, there's actually a third way. You don't have to buy into just this or just that. You can pick me. I am going to be more — because I'm younger and I'm more of a visionary. I'm not a Washington insider. I'm going to be different from Joe Biden. I'm not all about returning to normalcy.

    I don't think there's such a thing as a pre-Trump normalcy. At the same time, I don't have an interest in getting into these protracted all-or-nothing fights on policy, whether it's on guns or Medicare for all or on immigration, that some of the other people on this stage want.

    And so really setting up a way for voters who may not feel like they're comfortable in either one of those lanes to have a place to go.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned you were going to watch Pete Buttigieg in that debate.

    And since the debate, his campaign actually announced he's raised a million dollars since that performance. You have also been following the money, which is an interesting place to look. The FEC deadline for those third-quarter fund-raising numbers was yesterday.

    Do we know anything about what that…

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, I do think that more than — more than this debate performance, the money is going to be really the story going forward, and the fact that Pete Buttigieg did have a breakout night.

    But he also raised a lot of money in that third quarter. And he's sitting on $20 million — $23 million.

    Joe Biden, the front-runner, at least in the polling, has only $9 million in the bank. That is not a very good place to be as we're headed to where we're getting to big spending time, getting into December especially.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    I mean, isn't that also, though, a problem for Elizabeth Warren, in that Bernie Sanders has a boatload of cash sitting on?

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    He's not the kind of person to just go away.

  • Amy Walter:

    That's a good point.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    As long as he has the money, as long as he gets some endorsements that he thinks are useful to him, whether I think they're quite as — like AOC, I'm not quite so sure that is as useful to he thinks.

  • Amy Walter:

    Right.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    But as long as he thinks they're useful, isn't he likely to stay in the race? And isn't that a problem for Warren, because they are — they're not competing for identical groups of voters, but similar sorts of supporters.

  • Amy Walter:

    Right. That's right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There is some overlap there.

    There's also — you saw from the outside some of those lower polling candidates. We always say these debates are a great opportunity for them to try to punch up, try to break through.

    Stu, did you notice anyone else — Amy mentioned Pete Buttigieg — kind of really standing out to her. Did you notice anyone else breaking away?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Well, I thought obviously Amy Klobuchar did.

    I thought she did a good job. She was very aggressive, again went after Warren and really positioned herself as someone who is realistic, pragmatic and can work with Republicans, or at least put forward policy proposals that are reasonable. And she's willing to compromise.

    Having said that, I don't know if there's any way for her to go as long as Joe Biden is in the race. And nobody else stood out to me. I don't know if I would say that's a missed opportunity. I keep waiting for Kamala Harris to bust out again. But she didn't.

    And Booker was fine. But it's just hard to stand out when you have a crowd, and when you have the focus on three or four people at the top of the list.

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right.

    And they all seem to, though, be positioning themselves, even Buttigieg, for what happens if one of those three front-runners is no longer in the contest, in other words, that they have slipped.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    But it's not just one of the three front-runners, right?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, specifically Joe Biden…

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Specifically Joe Biden.

  • Amy Walter:

    … if you're Pete Buttigieg.

    And if you're Elizabeth Warren, you're hoping that it's Bernie Sanders is unable to turn that money into actual votes, and that there we go.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, over the course of the night — really quickly — too, I want to mention President Trump's name was introduced again and again and again into the conversation.

    One of the main questions for Democratic primary voters out there is, who can beat Donald Trump one day? Did anyone, you think, set themselves up as the man or the woman who can stand up to President Trump?

  • Amy Walter:

    Listen, Joe Biden, on polls, still leads on that question.

    It's been dropping, the percent of Democrats who believe he can beat Donald Trump. Elizabeth Warren is the one who really has to break through that ceiling of electability.

    And I think the fact that she was the target last night should stand her well in making the case that I know what it's like to take incoming, and I know how to be able to deflect that and also punch back, and, as Stu said, to stick with my message. I'm not going to get distracted by all the different attacks that I'm going to get in the campaign.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Stu, just 30 seconds.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    I guess I don't think that the electability argument will be decided until early 2020, after the Iowa caucuses.

    Let's see who does well. Let's see who improves or fails over the next couple of months. Electability will be important, but we really don't know what it's going to look like in the late winter, early spring.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Still a long way to go.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, long way to go.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And another debate just a month away.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yay.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Amy Walter and Stu Rothenberg.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    I can't take another one.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Thanks to you both.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Thanks.

  • Amy Walter:

    Thanks.

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