MIAMI (CN) – Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls, most of whom hoping to break out among a crowded field, presented their vision of a more progressive America on Wednesday night in the first debate of the 2020 presidential election.
Immigration, gun control and wealth inequality dominated the two-hour debate as candidates struggled to convey subtle policy differences in 60-second snippets.
The debate, held in the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami, was a chance for well-known politicians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke to continue the messaging they’ve perfected over the last couple years.
Candidates polling in the single digits hoped the night would give them an opportunity to break through the pack.
Warren held the coveted middle spot on the stage flanked by the other candidates: O’Rourke, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
Booker, O’Rourke and Warren largely dominated debate time while Ryan and Delaney became frustrated in the second half for lack of time.
The contenders began the debate agreeing on income inequality.
“Who is this economy really working for?” Warren asked. “It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. It’s doing great for giant drug companies. It’s just not doing great for people who are trying to get a prescription filled.”
While listing his accomplishments in New York City, de Blasio continued the theme.
“Let me tell you, every time you talk about investing in people and their communities, you hear folks say there’s not enough money,” he said. “What I say to them every single time is, there’s plenty of money in this world, there’s plenty of money in this country. It’s just in the wrong hands. Democrats have to fix that.”
Healthcare brought the first policy differences among the candidates when moderator Lester Holt asked who would support abolishing all private insurance. Only Warren and de Blasio raised their hands.
“I’m concerned with kicking half of America off their job’s health insurance in four years,” Klobuchar said.
Delaney, who led two publicly-traded companies before age 40, also pushed hard against such a plan.
“We should be the party of keeping what’s working and fix what’s broken,” he said.
In a nod to Miami residents, home to a large and diverse Hispanic community, candidates like O’Rourke peppered many of his responses with Spanish. Warren and Klobuchar brought up their visit to a migrant shelter for children in Homestead this week. The candidates criticized the facility, the largest in the country recently beset by allegations of sexual abuse.
Passions rose after moderator Jose Diaz-Balart of Telemundo brought up the recent deaths of an immigrant father and his 23-month-old daughter, whose dead bodies were captured on camera.
“Watching that image of Oscar and his daughter, Valeria, was heartbreaking and it should piss us all off,” Castro said to roars from the audience.
Castro pushed back against his fellow Democrats after asking them to repeal the federal law that criminalizes illegal entry into the United States. At one point, Castro targeted O’Rourke, who would not pledge to repeal the law
“I think it’s a mistake, Beto, and if you truly want to change the system, we’ve got to repeal that section,” Castro said.
The candidates largely agreed on abortion and bringing back the nuclear deal with Iran with the exception of Booker, but once the issue of guns came up, candidates’ views greatly diverged.
“Gun violence is a national health emergency and we need to treat it as such,” Warren said.
Booker called for licenses for buying and owning guns.
“We need to have bold ideas when it comes to guns,” he said.
Klobuchar said she asks herself, “Does this [gun control proposal] hurt my Uncle Dick and his deer stand, coming from a proud hunting and fishing state?”
Despite the debate’s location in a city that regularly floods while the sun is shining and broke several heat records this week, moderators only spent 10 minutes on the subject of climate change.
“We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it,” said Inslee, who has made climate change his central issue.
Earlier in the week, he rode an airboat through the Everglades to promote a ban on leasing public lands for fossil fuel production.
Delaney proposed a more business-friendly approach, “Ask all the economists — carbon pricing works. You just have to do it right.”
During a question about Afghanistan, Ryan suggested the U.S. military should continue a presence in Afghanistan. Gabbard, a former Army National Guard medic who served in Iraq, argued the military should leave Afghanistan and called Ryan’s answer “unacceptable.”
“When we weren’t in there, they started flying planes into our buildings,” Ryan responded.
“The Taliban didn’t attack us on 9/11,” Gabbard countered. “Al Qaeda did.”
Halfway through the debate, President Donald Trump tweeted “Boring!” His campaign later released a statement vilifying Democrats’ “socialist” policies.
“This debate was the best argument for President Trump’s re-election and should really be counted as an in-kind contribution to the President’s campaign,” the statement said. “The Democrats proposed a radical government takeover of American society that would demolish the American dream so many are gaining access to under the growing Trump economy.”
Although the party bypassed Miami as the host city for the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Democrats strategically chose to hold the first two debates there. Florida is the nation’s largest swing state and most analysts agree a presidential candidate cannot win without its voters.
On Thursday, 10 more candidates will debate on the same stage, including former vice president and frontrunner Joe Biden.
Before the debates, Biden led national and state polls by a large margin. This week, a St. Pete Polls survey found the former vice president leading by more than 47 percent among likely Democratic voters in Florida – more than all the other candidates combined.
But the debate stage on Wednesday remained largely silent about Biden.
Joining Biden on Thursday will be Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg; California Rep. Eric Swalwell, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and author Marianne Williamson.
Not all those running to become the next Democratic presidential nominee will have a chance to debate this week.
The Democratic National Committee decided three candidates did not meet the polling threshold to participate: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Alaska Gov. Mike Gravel, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton and Wayne Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Fla. and the only Floridian in the race.
“I think their requirements are arbitrary but the rules are what the rules are,” Messam told Courthouse News by phone before the debate. “However, when you look at a system that allows congressional candidates to transfer millions of dollars from their congressional campaign accounts to their presidential campaign accounts, a mayor or governor or non-congressional candidate has to start from scratch.”
Messam, the son of immigrants and a former football star from Florida State University, said the candidates need to focus on the disenfranchised.
“For us to win this race, you have to hear from voices like mine,” he said. “You have to hear from the voters that should vote Democratic, but their issues aren’t being addressed. I’m talking about black voters, immigrant communities, the LGBT community. There are a lot of issues that are still are not being solved.”
“If you want to inspire, especially in Florida when elections come down to 20,000 or 30,000 votes, you don’t want them sitting at home,” he continued. “You need them coming out inspired and energized to support a candidate so we can take this country where we need to take it.”