WESTERVILLE, Ohio (NBC News) – The Democratic presidential contenders faced off for their fourth debate on Tuesday night, and the divide between the moderates and progressives sharpened over the course of the evening.
The biggest rift between the 12 candidates on stage in Ohio was once again over health care and the cost of their various proposals and whether it’s proper to eliminate private health insurance. But splits were also evident over how far to push for an assault weapons ban and taxes on the wealthy.
She was the most attacked candidate of the night in her first debate since she’s zoomed to the front of the field. Warren was targeted by several rivals, but the strongest shots came from her moderate Senate colleague Amy Klobuchar. She accused Warren of not being honest about how she would pay for her plan to provide Medicare to every American, saying, “You are making Republican talking points right now in this room.”
But Warren held her ground, weathered the blows and emerged largely unscathed. She struck back at Klobuchar and others who challenged her, accusing them of “vague campaigns that nibble around the edges of big problems.”
For those looking for an especially strong debate performance from Biden after intense scrutiny over his son’s business dealings, tonight wasn’t it.
While the former vice president had a strong finish, he stumbled over this words at points and largely dodged a question about son Hunter Biden’s activities in Ukraine. Biden skated largely unchallenged by others on the stage for much of the night, but when he claimed he’s the only candidate with a record of getting big things done, that was enough for Bernie Sanders, who shot back: “You got the disastrous war in Iraq done!” And when Biden tried to take credit for helping Warren pass the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the Senate, she pointedly thanked President Barrack Obama instead.
He had a heart attack two weeks ago, but you wouldn’t know it from his energetic and boisterous performance Tuesday night, consistent with past debates. That may quell fans’ fears that the Vermont senator won’t be able to carry on an aggressive campaign — and he used the stage to announce a rally in New York City this weekend to put those thoughts to rest.
But with Warren rising in the polls and Sanders slipping, he did little to separate himself from her and the pair continued to be united against the more moderate voices on the stage.
Facing what could be the last debate she qualifies for, Klobuchar delivered her best showing to date. The Minnesota lawmaker, who has failed to gain traction on the campaign trail, came out fighting to keep her candidacy alive, as the threshold for qualifying for the November debate is higher. She convincingly offered herself as a daughter of Middle America, presenting an alternative for voters uncomfortable with more progressive candidates like Warren.
Struggling to get his campaign out of the single digits, Buttigieg aimed to portray himself as a centrist, likely hoping to rise should Biden stumble. Buttigieg’s strongest moments came when he referenced his service in the military to burnish his foreign policy credentials. And after a dispute over their gun control plans, Buttigieg lit into Beto O’Rourke, saying, “I don’t need lessons from you on courage — political or otherwise.”
While the other seven candidates had some had strong moments, their performances aren’t likely to catapult them into primary contention:
- Kamala Harris spoke passionately on access to abortion;
- O’Rourke was personal and heartfelt on gun control;
- Andrew Yang hit on his signature issue — how technology is changing the workforce;
- Tulsi Gabbard bolstered her anti-war stance in a tense exchange with Buttigieg over U.S. troops in Syria;
- Tom Steyer, tagged as the only billionaire on stage, said even he was for taxing the rich;
- Cory Booker edged a discussion on gun control toward violence in the inner cities and away from focusing on only mass shootings; and
- Julian Castro, raising the topic of immigration, which was barely touched in the debate, noted, “I also want people to think — the folks this week that saw those images of ISIS prisoners running free — to think about how absurd it is that this president is caging kids on the border and effectively letting ISIS prisoners run free.”
Shannon Pettypiece is the senior White House reporter for NBCNews.com.