Democratic debate stage features front-runners for first time

Democratic debate stage features front-runners for first time

Maureen Groppe, John Fritze, Michael Collins, Courtney Subramanian and David Jackson


Published 9:54 PM EDT Sep 12, 2019

This item will be updated throughout the evening. Check back often. 

Coiffer diplomacy

Booker referenced his bald pate in attacking Trump for using a national security waiver to impose tariffs on Canada, a country led by a prime minister with a healthy head of hair.

“I’m the only person on this stage that finds (Justin) Trudeau’s hair very menacing,” Booker said, “but they are not a national security threat.”

Booker’s larger point was that Trump’s “America first” policy has turned into an “America alone” policy in which he is pulling away from allies, making it harder to take on competitors like China.

–Maureen Groppe 

Trump’s ‘erratic’ trade policy

One by one, the Democratic candidates slammed President Donald Trump’s trade policy, which they described as “erratic.”

“The president clearly has no strategy,” Pete Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg recalled that when he entered the race, Trump derisively said he’d like to see Buttigieg make a deal with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

“I’d like to see HIM making a deal with Xi Jinping,” Buttigieg said. “Is it just me, or was that supposed to happen in, like, April?”

Buttigieg said that Trump’s inability to follow through on what he promises is being taken note of by both competitors and allies with serious consequences.

“We can use trade to help build a stronger economy,” Elizabeth Warren said.

Donald Trump’s “American first” policy is actually an “American alone” policy, Corey Booker said.

What they didn’t say: Whether they would be willing to eliminate the tariffs that Trump has slapped on Chinese imports as leverage designed to force China to agree to a new trade pact.

Amy Klobuchar came the closest. She said she would not have imposed the tariffs in the first place.

–Michael Collins, Maureen Groppe 

Trump slams Dems in Baltimore

During a busy night of Republican response to debating Democrats, President Donald Trump first took a low-key approach by saying he respected his opponents – but later mocked frontrunners Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren with scathing nicknames.

“I hit Pocahontas way too early,” Trump said, referring to Warren while speaking to a group of House Republicans in Baltimore. “I thought she was gone – she’s emerged from the ashes. And now it looks like she can beat Sleepy Joe (Biden) … He has no idea what’s going on.”

Trump also threw in a jab at South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg: “He’s doing a rotten job running his own city.”

As the president spoke in Baltimore, Democrats who debated in Houston accused Trump of fomenting racism by attacking people of color and denouncing immigrants as invaders. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke described Trump as a “white supremacist” who poses a “mortal threat” to the country, particularly minorities.

— David Jackson

Only the vice president?

Dissecting President Barack Obama and his administration’s record has become a central theme of the Democratic presidential debate.

It started, during the first hour, with health care, as the candidates sought to chart a direction on what to do with Obamacare.

It continued during a discussion on immigration, when Joe Biden was pressed directly on the administration’s record on deportations. Obama adopted many progressive policies on immigration, including allowing young people brought to the country illegally as children to avoid deportation. But his administration also deported immigrants in the country illegally at a rate that surprised fellow Democrats.

Biden was pressed directly on whether he stood by those deportations.

“We didn’t lock people in cages, we didn’t separate families,” Biden said. “I’m proud to have served with him.”

But when questioned again specifically about deportations, Biden noted that he was only the vice president at that time.

That drew a fiery response from Julian Castro.

“He wants to take credit for Obama’s work but not have to answer any questions,” Castro said.

Biden dismissed that criticism, arguing that he “stood with” Obama’s decisions for eight years, “good, bad and indifferent.”

“I did not say I did not stand with him,” Biden said.  

— John Fritze

Trump’s team fires back in real-time

President Donald Trump may not be watching the Democratic presidential debate, but his people are.

The Trump campaign’s rapid response team is firing off emails to reporters in defense of his record as Democrats go after him from the stage.

“President Trump is addressing gun safety while defending the 2nd Amendment,” read one message sent just minutes after Democrats slammed Trump failing to take on the issue of gun violence.

“Thanks to President Trump, black Americans are making historic progress and enjoying growing opportunities,” read another rebuttal when Democrats accused him of promoting racism.

“President Trump is fighting to bring down prescription drug prices for working families,” said another message when Democrats blasted Trump for trying to undo the Affordable Care Act.

–Michael Collins

Sanders and Warren attack the system

Sanders, rather than attacking the candidate with whom he is competing for the most liberal voters, grabbed at the chance to reiterate their joint call that the system is broken.

On the issue of gun control, Warren has said it can’t be addressed “until we attack the systematic problems.”

Asked a question about the Senate filibuster, Sanders said he wanted to get back to Warren’s point.

“What we are looking at is a corrupt political system,” he said, accusing drug companies, insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry for “determining what is happening in Washington.”

–Maureen Groppe 

Harris: Trump ‘tweeting out the ammunition’

When it came to gun violence, Kamala Harris talked about how difficult it is to see school children drill for mass shooters.

“It is traumatizing our children,” she said.

Then she brought up the president’s words as a contributing factor, bringing up the Walmart shooting in El Paso last month that left 22 dead and dozens more wounded.

Before the shooting, the gunman penned a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto that the president’s critics have said echo the president’s rhetoric.

“People asked me in El Paso, ‘Well do you think Trump is responsible for what happened?’, she said. “I said ‘Well, look, he obviously didn’t pull the trigger, but he’s certainly been tweeting out the ammunition’.” 

— Ledyard King

Taking away guns

After several of his competitors praised O’Rourke for his advocacy of gun control after a mass shooting in his home town, one of the moderators pressed him about his proposal to buy back military-style assault weapons. Critics call that confiscation.

O’Rourke said the weapons have to go when they’re being used against children. He described meeting a mother who watched her daughter bleed to death in Odessa after being shot with an AR-15.

“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said.

–Maureen Groppe 

Zingers dominate third debate

One key theme to emerge from the third Democratic presidential debate, so far: The gloves are off.

The ten candidates on stage have engaged in some of the sharpest exchanges Americans have witnessed so far in the race to replace President Donald Trump. Much of that tension in the first hour has been wrapped around the fight over how the nation should proceed on health care.

Candidates had zingers ready, but their fire was not directed in all directions – and not necessarily just at front runner Joe Biden.

Many observers were watching for fireworks between Biden and Elizabeth Warren, who has been steadily gaining grounds in polling. But, so far, most of the debate has played out between the three front runners – Biden, Warren and Bernie Sanders – and the rest of the field.

It was Julian Castro who claimed Biden was “forgetting what you said two minutes ago,” a not-so-subtle knock on Biden’s propensity for gaffes.

It was Amy Klobuchar who was among the most forceful critics of Sanders’ plan to expand government health care.

— John Fritze

John McCain makes an appearance

First Kamala Harris thanked Barack Obama for passing the Affordable Care Act that expanded health care for millions.

Then the California senator thanked Bernie Sanders for proposing Medicare for All.

Finally, she brought up the ghost of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who died last year, when talking about how he stopped Donald Trump’s plan to kill Obamacare.

“Donald Trump came into office and spent almost the entire first year of his office trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “We all fought against that, and then the late, great John McCain at about 2 in the morning killed his attempt to kill health care for millions of people in this country.”

As she spoke she pointed her right thumb down, mimicking McCain’s famous gesture when he broke from his party and became the deciding vote in 2017 against Trump’s plan to repeal Obamacare.

— Ledyard King

Where’s Cory?

More than 30 minutes into the debate, Cory Booker had not had a chance to speak since his opening statement.

During a spirited debate over health care, Booker was mainly silent while other candidates had a chance to jump in multiple times.

Booker got the last word on the debate over health care.

“There’s an urgency right now in this nation, everybody feels it,” Booker said when the camera turned to him. “We cannot sacrifice progress on the altar of purity.”

— John Fritze

Klobuchar slams Sanders’ health care plan

Amy Klobuchar came out swinging against the progressive plan to prove government health insurance for all Americans – and what has become a Bernie Sanders campaign mantra.

“While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill,” Klobuchar fired at Sanders, arguing that the plan would drop millions of Americans off their private health insurance. “I don’t think that’s a bold idea, I think it’s a bad idea.”

The line was a response to Sanders’ oft-repeated line that he “wrote the damn bill” to move to a Medicare-for-All health insurance system. 

Health care, and the fight over whether to make adjustments to Obamacare or to scrap it for additional government coverage, has dominated the opening moments of virtually every Democratic debate this year – and it has widely split the field.

— John Fritze

So much for that ‘no cursing’ rule

Bernie Sanders, in an extended defense of his Medicare for All plan, argued the proposal would be cost-effective. Then he added, “I wrote the damn bill!”

It was a recycled line that he first used in a presidential debate in July, when he claimed the plan would provide union members with better health care coverage than they have now.

Tim Ryan interjected, “You don’t know that, Bernie.

“I do know that — I wrote the damn bill,” Sanders fired back.

–Michael Collins

First question

Moderator George Stephanopoulos immediately tried to get the top three candidates engaged in a debate over how far left the party should go. He asked Biden whether Sanders and Warren are pushing too far beyond where most Democrats are on health care, climate change and college costs.

“That’s for voters to decide,” Biden said. “Let me tell you what I think.”

After saying Obamacare worked, Biden went after the cost of Medicare for All, saying Sanders and Warren haven’t explained how it will be paid for.

Warren responded that the question is how to improve on Obamacare.

“And I believe the best way we can do that is we make sure everybody gets covered with health care at the lowest possible cost,” she said. “And middle-class families are going to pay less.”

— Maureen Groppe 

Beto goes after guns in his opening

Beto O’Rourke, who has made gun control a centerpiece of his campaign, went hard on the issue in his opening statement.

O’Rourke used his first words to note the El Paso shooting on Aug. 3 that left 22 people dead.

The former Texas congressman also went after President Donald Trump, arguing that the shooter was “inspired to kill by our president.”

— John Fritze


It didn’t take long for someone to use the most famous line associated with the city hosting the debate.

“Houston we have a problem,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. a reference to the message from Apollo 13 astronauts to Mission Control in Houston. The NASA mission in 1970 returned to Earth after technical problems prevented it from reaching the moon.

— Ledyard King

They’re off

The third Democratic presidential debate is underway in Houston.

Appearing on stage from left to right; Amy Klobuchar; Pete Buttigieg; Bernie Sanders; Joe Biden; Elizabeth Warren; Kamala Harris; Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro.

Buckle up: The debate, which is airing on ABC and Univision, is expected to last three hours. Follow along here for the latest.

— John Fritze

Battle for the remote

In July, it was the season finale of The Bachelorette.

This time, football fans who are following the Democratic presidential race will face a choice: NFL Thursday Night Football will feature a match-up between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers.

Politics observers – including President Donald Trump – have often paid close attention to the ratings captured by networks hosting the debates. Are Americans still tuning in? Is interest in the race already waning, less than five months from the Iowa caucuses?

Are Americans, as the president claimed after ratings were released for one of two debates in July, just “desperate for Trump”?

In July, both the debate and the Bachelorette finale were slated to run from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET, forcing millions of Americans to choose between national politics and reality-TV politics. 

Some 8.7 million viewers watched the first night’s debate live on CNN. Another 2.8 million watched on CNN’s live stream. That bested The Bachelorette, which drew 7.4 million viewers.

This time, the debate is almost certain to have a major advantage in the ratings battle. The candidates will scrimmage on the ABC broadcast network; the game is on the cable-only NFL Network.

The game is also being played in Charlotte, N.C., the site of next year’s Republican nominating convention. 

— David Jackson and John Fritze

Yang plans to dole out cash

Andrew Yang promised this week to do something unusual at tonight’s debate.

It turns out, he will deliver on that promise.

Buzzfeed News reported Thursday that Yang is planning to announce a contest in which he will award 10 families with $1,000 a month for one year.

Yang has pulled out the marketing move before (though not at a debate). The effort is intended to highlight his plan for a universal basic income – a central part of his economic message – in which every American citizen over the age of 18 would be guaranteed $1,000 a month.

The idea has gained prominence among some economists who argue a universal income would offset job loss caused by advances in technology.

— John Fritze

Well, dang!

The candidates have been warned. Or maybe begged.

ABC, which is hosting tonight’s Democratic debate, would really appreciate it if the Democrats can keep from swearing during the three-hour event.

It’s not that the network doesn’t appreciate passion and authenticity. But the network is governed by Federal Communication Commission indecency rules. And because there will be no delay on broadcasting the live event, ABC will not be able to edit out foul language, the network told the candidates.

They may be particularly concerned about former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who has been dropping the F-bomb to express his anger about gun violence. His campaign is even selling T-shirts with the expression he’s used.

Asked Saturday if he would swear on the debate stage, O’Rourke had a five-letter response: Maybe.

During the first debates in June, entrepreneur Andrew Yang said the Russians are laughing their (behinds) off at the United States as they try to manipulate the elections.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker used the S-word during the last debates. But he was repeating President Donald Trump’s reported description of countries from which he did not want to accept immigrants.

Booker has also sworn on social media, such as when he tweeted in June a defense of fellow competitor Kamala Harris’ heritage, saying she doesn’t have “sh—t” to prove.

When a follower questioned whether someone else had taken over Booker’s account, he responded: “Oh, this is definitely me.”

-Maureen Groppe

Biden, Warren face off

Former Vice President Joe Biden will need to prove himself against Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren who has been rising in the polls. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is still competing with Warren for support from the most progressive wing of the party.

And California Sen. Kamala Harris will try to reignite the spark she lit from the first debate that has since faded.

How to watch: Warren, Biden face off in tonight’s debate. Here’s how to watch

What to watch: Five questions the Democratic debate may answer

Relive the highlights: Top moments from the last debate

The six other candidates on stage still have to show that they belong in the top tier.

Democrats who didn’t meet the party’s qualifying rules for tonight’s debate – including Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan – will have a harder time qualifying for next month’s debate without tonight’s exposure. Billionaire Tom Steyer didn’t make this debate but has met the conditions for the next one, in October.

After opening statements, tonight’s contenders will have one minute and 15 seconds for direct responses to questions. They’ll get an additional 45 seconds for responses and rebuttals.

Airing on ABC and Univision, the three-hour event will be moderated by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, David Muir, Linsey Davis and by Univision’s Jorge Ramos.

The candidates are debating at Texas Southern University, a historically black university in Houston.

Texas is also home to two of the competitors, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro who will be standing next to each other on one end of the stage. The order was determined by polling averages.

Here’s the full list from left to right: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sanders; Biden; Warren; Harris; entrepreneur Andrew Yang, O’Rourke; Castro.

– Maureen Groppe

Trump predicts Biden win at debate

President Donald Trump will miss the Democratic debate on Thursday because he’s speaking to Republican lawmakers holding their annual retreat in Baltimore.

But that doesn’t mean that the president doesn’t have thoughts.

Trump predicted that Joe Biden will prevail so long as “he doesn’t make any major mistakes.”

Like many Americans, the president also seems eager to view the Democratic field as being much smaller than it is on paper.

“You have three people leading,” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn. “I think it’s going to be one of those three.”

— David Jackson and John  Fritze 

Google weighs in. How tall are they? 

If tonight’s candidates took the stage based on how often they’ve been Googled this past week instead of by their polling averages, the center stage would look a little different. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders would still be there. But Andrew Yang, not Elizabeth Warren, would be in the top three, according to Google. Warren ranked fourth.

The search engine also looked at the top questions people had about the candidates this week. Googlers wanted to know if Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro and Amy Klobuchar are still running. Searchers were curious about whether Cory Booker is dating or married.

The top question people had about the three oldest candidates – Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – was how old they are.

And one of the top five questions for nearly every candidate was how tall they are.

But despite a common belief that the tallest candidate usually wins, the shorter person won three of the last five presidential elections.

–Maureen Groppe

Not everyone is in Houston

What are the candidates who didn’t qualify for tonight’s debate doing instead?

Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan is speaking at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of law, his alma mater.

Billionaire Tom Steyer and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock campaigned in Iowa Thursday.

“See you in Iowa today, and over the next 143 days!” Bullock tweeted.

After her watch party at the Writers Guild of America in California, author Marianne Williamson planned to talk about what she would have said had she been on stage. Her take, moderated by a writer with The Hollywood Reporter, will be livestreamed.

Supporters of Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard are gathering at Veggie Street Restaurant where they will “blast searches and inundate social media with our support for Tulsi.”

–Maureen Groppe

As if they could avoid Trump

President Donald Trump will, of course, be center stage at the Democratic presidential debate on Thursday without having ever stepped into Houston.

But the Trump campaign apparently also wanted to own the skies.

Trump’s campaign hired a plane to fly a banner over the debate’s host city. The message drew from the president’s leading reelection mantra: That Democrats running to replace him 2020 have veered too far to the left.

“Socialism will kill Houston’s economy,” the banner read. “Vote Trump 2020.”

— John Fritze

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