Sanders goes after Biden — again. This time on Iraq.
As the debate delved into foreign policy, Mr. Biden, without being asked, brought up and lamented his 2002 vote to authorize President George W. Bush to launch the Iraq war.
“I should have never voted to give Bush the authority to go in and do what we said he was going to do,” Mr. Biden said.
He went on to say he opposed Mr. Bush’s execution of the war that he voted to authorize.
“What I was arguing against in the beginning, once he started to put the troops in, was that in fact we were doing it the wrong way, there was no plan, we should not be engaged, we didn’t have the people with us, we didn’t have our allies with it,” Mr. Biden said.
There was no way Mr. Sanders was going to let that go, and he did not. He took square aim at the polling front-runner, once again drawing a stark distinction between the two men.
“The truth is, the huge mistake, and one of the differences between you and me is that I never believed what Cheney and Bush said,” he said. “I voted against the war in Iraq and led the opposition to it.”
Rivals are clearly aiming at Biden. He is punching back.
In the first nearly 100 minutes of debate, the Democratic field was cleaved between aggressors, defenders and relative wallflowers, with most of the attacks continuing to be aimed at Mr. Biden, whose durability atop the polls has taken some rivals by surprise.
The candidates sparred, yet again, over health care policy, what to do about institutional racism, guns and trade.
Mr. Biden stumbled at times over some specifics but delivered a more forceful defense of his record than at the two earlier debates. Some landed some early offensive framing of his own, particularly with Ms. Warren who has close the polling gap on him.
“I know that the senator says she’s for Bernie, well, I’m for Barack,” Mr. Biden said, speaking of health care but really about much more.
For the most part, Ms. Warren was willing to fade from the center stage spot she had secured for herself, making her case against political corruption more than against any particular rival as he ongoing truce with Mr. Sanders continued to hold.
The most aggressive candidate onstage was Mr. Castro, who questioned Mr. Biden both on policy and, pointedly, his memory.
“Are you forgetting what you said just two minutes ago?’ Mr. Castro questioned the former vice president.
Mr. Booker and Mr. Buttigieg, who have framed their candidacies as healers and uniters, tried at times to intervene in the food fighting, as Mr. O’Rourke used the emotional resonance of the recent shooting in El Paso to break through the din with an emotional call to confiscate assault-style rifles.
Ms. Harris, meanwhile, made it plain from her opening statement what he plan was: to not debate her rivals onstage but pivot to President Trump at every opportunity, often with preplanned lines.
“He reminds me of that guy in “The Wizard of Oz,” when you pull back the curtain, it’s a really small dude,” she said to laughs.
Mr. Yang and Ms. Klobuchar mostly faded from view unless called upon.
Sanders questioned about socialism in Latin America.
Mr. Sanders was asked, as he has been before, about how his brand of democratic socialism compares to “the ones being imposed in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua,” as Mr. Ramos put it.
Mr. Sanders, as he has done before, rejected the framing.
“I’ll tell you what I believe in terms of democratic socialism. I agree with goes on in Canada and Scandinavia,” said, saying he was for universal health care, paid leave and living wages, and then inveighed against the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few billionaires.
Mr. Sanders was also asked why he does not called Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro a “dictator.”
“Anybody that does what Maduro does is a vicious tyrant. What we need now is international and regional cooperation for free elections in Venezuela to the people of that country can create their own future,” Mr. Sanders said.
Castro came next. “I’ll call Maduro a dictator,” he said. “Because he is a dictator.”
Candidates’ speaking time so far.
Democrats hammer Trump on trade and China.
What should Democrats do about Mr. Trump’s China tariffs? None of them really want to say, though they were happy to criticize the president.
Mr. Yang would leave them stand, at least at first. “ I would not repeal the tariffs on day one, but I would let the Chinese know we need to hammer out a deal,” he said.
Mr. Buttigieg called out the president for not reaching the trade deal he promised. “I remember President Trump scotched and said he’d like to see me make a deal with Xi Jinping,” he said. “I’d like to see him make a deal with Xi Jinping.”
Mr. Castro said he “would immediately begin to negotiate with China to ratchet down that trade war.”
And Ms. Klobuchar said Mr. Trump’s steel tariffs aren’t focused. They are, she said, “like poker chips in his bankrupt casinos.”
Only Ms. Warren brought anything close to specifics in making an argument on trade policy, though she was heavier on who she would align with than what she would actually seek to do.
“I want to negotiate trade with unions at the table. I want to negotiate it with small farmers at the table. I want to negotiate it with environmentalists at the table. I want to negotiate with human rights activists at the table,” she said.
O’Rourke: ‘Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15.’
Mr. O’Rourke is no longer standing at center stage. And it showed on Thursday because his rivals kept praising him for his role in healing the community in El Paso after the recent shooting.
Mr. Biden first: “He way he handled what happened in his hometown is meaningful.” Ms. Harris: “Beto, god love you for standing to courageously in the midst of that tragedy.”
When Mr. O’Rourke got his chance, his voice rose in a crescendo as he invoked a curse word — albeit one that can air on national television, calling for mandatory buybacks of assault rifles.
“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against a fellow American anymore,” Mr. O’Rourke declared.
The crowd gave him one of the loudest cheers of the night.
Ms. Klobuchar wouldn’t endorse a mandatory buybacks of assault-style rifles, instead praising the various gun control proposals backed by all of the Democratic presidential candidates.
“I personally think we should start with a voluntary buyback program,” she said.
Mr. Booker was less laudatory of Mr. O’Rourke, as he said communities like his own have long been plagued by gun violence.
“I’m sorry that it had to take issues coming to my neighborhood or personally affecting Beto to make us demand change,” Mr. Booker said.
A liberal vs. a moderate on trade.
After a meaty discussion on Mr. Trump’s tariffs on China, Mr. Sanders pivoted to a contrast between his views on trade policy and Mr. Biden’s, citing his opposition to the Obama administration’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Nafta.
“The average American today, despite an explosion of technology and worker productivity, is not making a penny more than he or she made 45 years ago. And one of the reasons is that, for decades, we have had disastrous trade policies,” Mr. Sanders said. “I have to say to my good friend Joe Biden, Joe and I strongly disagree on trade.”
Mr. Biden shot back, saying only an American-led coalition can win a trade war with China.
“You need to organize the world to take on China, to stop the corrupt practices that are underway,” he said, parrying the attack from Mr. Sanders without directly answering it.
Harris and Klobuchar face questions about their prosecutor records.
Ms. Klobuchar and Ms. Harris got tough questions about their records as prosecutors not being sufficiently progressive — and both largely dodged the specifics in responding.
“That’s not my record,” Ms. Klobuchar said when told that the A.C.L.U. was sour about her record responding to police shootings of black men when she was the district attorney in Minneapolis.
“What changes did we make?” she said. “Go after white collar crimes in a big way. Diversity in office in a big way. Work with the Innocence Project to make sure we do much better with eyewitness I.D.”
Ms. Harris said she “glad you asked me this question,” though mostly avoided answering it, claiming “many distortions” of her record.
Ultimately, she took some ownership of that record. “Was I able to get enough done? Absolutely not,” Ms. Harris said, pitching her new criminal justice plan as ambitious going forward.
After Ms. Klobuchar and Ms. Harris spoke, Mr. Biden made sure to note he became a public defender, leaving unsaid the contrast with the other prosecutors onstage.
First question: Does Biden think Warren and Sanders are going too far with their plans?
The opening question, to Mr. Biden, cut to the core of the ideological divide of the party: How ambitious should the Democratic Party be in crafting plans for health care, climate change and raising taxes.
Mr. Biden choose to focus on health care, where he wants to build on the Affordable Care Act while Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren want to implement a Medicare for All system.
“I think we should have a debate on health care. I think — I know that the senator says she’s for Bernie, well, I’m for Barack,” Mr. Biden said. “I think the Obamacare worked.”
Ms. Warren sought to neutralize any forthcoming attacks from Mr. Biden about not respecting the legacy of Mr. Obama. She praised Mr. Obama for the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and said she wants to build on it.
Pressed on how to pay for it, she said, “We pay for it, those at the very top, the richest individuals and the biggest corporations, are going to pay more. And middle class families are going to pay less.”
Ms. Warren refused to get drawn into the question about whether middle-class taxes will increase, returning the issue to whether total cost of health care will increase or not.
Mr. Sanders directly criticized Mr. Biden for his criticism of Medicare for All.
“Let us be clear, Joe, in the United States of America, we have spending twice as much per capita on health care as the Canadians or any other major country on Earth,” Mr. Sanders said.
“This is America,” Mr. Biden shot back.
Jonathan Martin and Astead W. Herndon contributed reporting from Houston.