With steamy South Florida as the backdrop, the candidates delved into an array of issues, from the growing conflict with Iran to gun control. But sparks flew the most when the candidates addressed kitchen-table concerns.
MIAMI — Crammed onto the stage like bumper-to-bumper Miami traffic, the Democratic presidential candidates began the process Wednesday of winnowing their crowded field during a debate that showcased the divisions in the party on issues such as health care, taxes and making college more affordable.
With steamy South Florida as the backdrop, the debate at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center delved into an array of issues, from the growing conflict with Iran to gun control, but often was most explosive when the candidates were debating kitchen-table concerns.
The question of how far to pursue progressive ideas that could lead to big tax increases and expand government involvement in health care and other sectors were front and center during a debate that offered the first big opportunity to stand out from the pack in front of a national audience.
“What we’re hearing here already in the first round of questions is that battle for the heart and soul of our party,” said New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, who is pushing a strongly liberal agenda that includes higher taxes on the wealthy and more generous social programs.
The matchup included 10 of the Top 20 Democratic candidates — the other 10 are set to debate Thursday — but few who are well-known, with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, the leading candidate among those who took the stage Wednesday.
The RealClear Politics polling average has Warren in third behind former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders — who will debate Thursday — and the Harvard professor was at center stage among a debate group that also included U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former U.S. Rep. John Delaney, De Blasio, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
Looking to stay in the top tier of candidates and continue gaining on Biden and Sanders, Warren was forceful in defending her populist progressive platform of "Medicare-for-All," free college and breaking up large tech corporations.
Questioned about the expense of such programs and their potential to disrupt a strong economy, Warren said many people aren’t reaping the benefits of the economic boom and the government needs to be more aggressive.
“There are a lot of politicians who say, 'oh it’s just not possible,'” Warren said in defending her support for Medicare-for-All. “What they’re really telling you is they just won’t fight for it. Well, health care is a basic human right and I will fight for basic human rights.”
Gabbard and De Blasio also said they support for Medicare for all, with De Blasio saying private insurance “is not working for tens of millions of Americans when you talk about the copays, the deductibles, the premiums, the out of pocket expenses, it’s not working.”
But other candidates, including O’Rourke, Delaney and Klobuchar, voiced reservations about the high tax, big government approach of some in the party.
“I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids, I do,” Klobuchar said, adding that she wants to make community college free.
“I think we should be the party that keeps what’s working and fixes what’s broken,” Delaney said. “We should give everyone in this country health care … but we should also give them the option to buy private insurance. Why do we have to stand for taking something away from people?”
For many of the candidates, the debate offered a chance to introduce themselves to many voters, seek to make a good first impression and try for a breakthrough moment. Some of the candidates highlighted signature issues, such as Inslee, who has made climate change the focus of his campaign.
As a low-lying peninsula, Florida is especially vulnerable to climate change, and the issue was a major topic in the run-up to the debate. Climate activists have been calling for an entire debate focused on the issue. They gathered outside the debate hall Wednesday.
“We know that we can put millions of people to work in the clean energy jobs of the future,” Inslee said.
A number of candidates also took veiled jabs at President Donald Trump as they jockeyed to present themselves as the best positioned to take on the president, a key attribute that Democratic voters are looking for.
“This president is not simply divisive and dangerous, he’s chronically ineffective,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez in warming up the crowd.
The depth of antipathy toward Trump within the Democratic base was evident outside the Arsht Center, where handmade signs reading “Lock Him Up” and “Fake News Fake Trump Fake Republicans” were stuck to a post on a street corner.
But criticizing Trump was not enough to put Hillary Clinton in the White House, and many Democratic strategists believe the party needs to focus on making compelling arguments about the economy, health care and other issues that directly impact voters.
Trump has been trying to paint Democrats as the party of socialism, a point Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel made Wednesday during a visit to the Versailles restaurant in the heart of Florida’s Cuban exile community.
“There is no question they are embracing more and more government takeover,” McDaniel said.
Many of the candidates in Wednesday’s debate tried to frame their policies around the idea of economic fairness and helping the middle class.
“It’s about time that we have a economy that works for everybody,” Booker said.
Immigration also will be central to the 2020 campaign and has been a focus for the Democratic candidates this week because of the controversy surrounding the Homestead detention center for migrant children, a large shelter for unaccompanied migrants who are apprehended at the border.
Both Warren and Klobuchar visited the shelter Wednesday.
The recent drowning deaths of a father and daughter at the border also have refocused attention on the issue, and were brought up by the moderators Wednesday.
“Every American should feel that in our heart and say that is not America, that is not our values,” De Blasio said.
The candidates denounced Trump’s immigration policies.
“We would not build walls, we would not put kids in cages,” O’Rourke said.