HOUSTON — An aggressive Joe Biden defended his health care plan against liberal rivals Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in Thursday night's presidential debate, a high-stakes clash for the Democratic nomination to take on Republican Donald Trump and for the broader direction of their own party.
Biden, Barack Obama's vice president and the party's early 2020 front-runner, lashed out at Sanders and Warren and contended they haven't yet explained how they would pay for Sanders' government-backed "Medicare for All" health care plan.
"This is America," Biden interrupted as Sanders noted that Americans spend much more on health care than Canadians or other countries. He wants to update rather than replace "Obamacare," and he said simply: "I'm for Barack."
Warren sidestepped questions about the cost of Medicare for All, while Sanders punched back at Biden. The Vermont senator said Biden bears responsibility for millions of Americans going bankrupt under the health care system Obama implemented.
The debate, more heated than the two previous, took place as the Democratic Party's leading candidates shared the debate stage for the first time. The moderate Biden stood at center stage with his leading progressive rivals, Sanders and Warren, on each side.
The former vice president's remarkably steady lead in the crowded contest has been built on the idea that the former vice president is best suited to defeat Trump next year — a contention based on ideology, experience and perhaps gender. Sanders and Warren, meanwhile, have repeatedly criticized Biden's measured approach, at least indirectly, by arguing that only bold action on key issues like health care, the economy and climate change can build the coalition needed to win in 2020.
Each of the other seven candidates onstage strained for TV time and attention with the attention of the nation beginning to increase less than five months before the first primary votes are cast.
The candidates on stage included Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Sen. Kamala Harris, New York businessman Andrew Yang, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and former Obama administration Housing chief Julian Castro.
The Democrats assailed Trump repeatedly. They called him a racist and a white supremacist.
Harris addressed the Republican president directly in her opening statement: "President Trump, you have spent the last two-and-a-half years full time trying to sow hate and vision among us, and that's why we've gotten nothing done."
And while they criticized the president with no mercy, the Democrats on stage also repeatedly took aim at Biden, their own party's front-runner.
Castro, 44, appeared to touch on concerns about Biden's age when he accused the former vice president of forgetting a detail about his own health care plan. At 76, Biden would be the oldest president ever elected to a first term.
"Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?" Castro asked. "I can't believe that you said two minutes ago that you have to buy in and now you're forgetting that."
He added: "I'm fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama and you're not."
The ABC News debate was the first limited to one night after several candidates dropped out and others failed to meet new qualification standards. A handful more candidates qualified for next month's debate, which will again be divided over two nights.
Besides the infighting, viewers saw the diversity of the modern Democratic Party.
The debate, held on the campus of historically black Texas Southern University, includes women, people of color and a gay man, a striking contrast to the Republicans. It unfolded in a rapidly changing state that Democrats hope to eventually bring into their column.
Trump in Baltimore to address GOP lawmakers at a retreat, said of the debate, "I'm going to have to watch it as a re-run." He predicted the Democrats' nominee would ultimately be Biden, Warren or Sanders.