Politics: Buttigeg counterpunches as rivals take aim at his rising candidacy

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The Democratic presidential candidates debate Wednesday for the fifth time — and the first where Pete Buttigieg as a true frontrunner in the crowded race.

Peter Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders posing for a photo: South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (left), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (center left), former Vice President Joe Biden (center right) and Sen. Bernie Sanders take the stage for the November debate. © Alex Wong/Getty Images South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (left), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (center left), former Vice President Joe Biden (center right) and Sen. Bernie Sanders take the stage for the November debate.

The South Bend, Indiana mayor has risen to the top in a flagship poll of first-in-the-nation Iowa. And there’s a four-way battle between Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in the second early state, New Hampshire, creating a new dynamic of heightened uncertainty in this crowded debate.

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Here are some of the key moments of Wednesday's debate.

Harris, Booker warn against Buttigieg as nominee

The black candidates on stage warned Democrats that they can’t afford to nominate a candidate who doesn’t appeal to diverse constituencies.

Harris was careful not to personally attack Buttigieg over his lack of appeal with black voters but spoke to “the larger issue.”

“The larger issue is that for too long, I think candidates have taken for granted constituencies that have been the backbone of the Democratic Party and have overlooked those constituencies,” Harris said.

She criticized the habit of candidates generally who show up in black communities right before an election but are absent through the bulk of their campaigns. “The question,” she insisted, “has to be where you been and what are you gonna do? And do you understand what the people want?”

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Buttigieg, for his part, said he “completely” agreed with Harris’ critique, which ended with the California senator saying Democrats need to recreate the Obama coalition to win.

“I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don’t know yet know me,” Buttigieg added. “While I do not have the experience of ever being discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate.”

Given a chance to respond, Harris said justice is on the ballot in 2020 but again declined to directly criticize Buttigieg. “The issue really is not what is the fight. The issue has to be how we gon’ win,” she said, going on to invoke the Obama coalition again. “I keep referring to that because that’s the last time we won. And the way that that election looked and what that coalition looked like was it was about having a leader who had worked in many communities, knows those communities and has the ability to bring people together.”

Sen. Cory Booker was later asked a question about the southern border. But he used that opportunity to revive the discussion on race.

“I want to turn back to the issue of black voters. I have a lifetime of experience with black voters,” Booker said. “I’ve been one since I was 18. Nobody on this stage should need a focus group to hear from African American voters,” a veiled shot at Buttigieg’s campaign.

“Black voters are p****d off, and they’re worried,” Booker continued. “They’re p****d off because the only time our issues seem to be really paid attention to by politicians is when people are looking for their vote. And they’re worried because the Democratic Party, we don’t wanna see people miss this opportunity and lose because we are nominating someone that isn’t trusted, doesn’t have authentic connections.”

Biden overstates his support among black voters

Biden and his campaign have understandably bragged about how he enjoys the strongest support from African-American voters of anyone in the race, including the two black senators running against him, Harris and Booker.

Video by NBC News

But Biden couldn’t leave well enough alone and exaggerated by counting among his supporters “the only African-American woman that’s ever been elected to the United States Senate.”

“No,” Booker said.

“That’s not true,” Harris said, speaking from experience because she is, in fact, an African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate who isn’t endorsing Biden. “The other one is here,” Harris chuckled as the crowd laughed with her.

Biden then tried to clean up his remarks by falsely claiming, “I said ‘the’ first African-American woman, ‘the’ first African-American woman.”

The awkward exchange came just moments before Booker humorously called Biden out for his recent remarks about marijuana legalization, although Booker got his facts wrong as well by saying Biden opposed it.

“This week I heard him literally say I don't think we should legalize marijuana. I thought you might have been high when you said it,” Booker said.

Biden, however, pointed out that he believes marijuana should be decriminalized.

“I think we should decriminalize marijuana, period, and anyone who has a record should be let out of jail, their record expunged, be completely,” said Biden, who hasn’t said he would legalize it at the federal level and who believes it might still be a “gateway drug.”

Buttigieg, Gabbard spar over national security credentials

Buttigieg said “Washington experience is not the only experience that matters,” casting his military service in Afghanistan as an example of the type of experience the Democratic nominee needs to have.

But Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard disagreed with the notion that their military service qualifies them to serve as commander in chief. Gabbard said she has “extensive experience” having served in Congress for seven years, including on the Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security committees.

“I think the most recent example of your inexperience in national security and foreign policy came from your recent careless statement about how you as president would be willing to send our troops to Mexico to fight the cartels,” she said.

“I know that it’s par for the course in Washington to take remarks out of context, but that is outlandish even by the standards of today’s politics,” Buttigieg retorted.

He clarified that he was talking about U.S.-Mexico cooperation. “Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?” he asked.

“I’m talking about building alliances. And if your question is about experience, let’s also talk about judgment,” he said. “One of the foreign leaders you mentioned meeting was Bashar al Assad. I have in my experience such as it is, whether you think it counts or not since it wasn’t accumulated in Washington, enough judgment that I would not have sat down with a murderous dictator like that.”

Biden swipes at Steyer on climate

California billionaire Tom Steyer has been one of the most vocal advocates — and top spenders — on climate change and is the only candidate in the race to say he’ll declare it a national emergency and use executive power to drastically scale back fossil fuels.

“I'm the only person on this stage that will say climate is the number one priority for me. Vice president Biden won't say it. Senator Warren won't say it,” Steyer said. “It's a state of emergency, and I would declare a state of emergency on day one.”

Biden, because he was name-checked, got a chance to respond and was unexpectedly critical of how Steyer made his money.

“While I managed the $900 billion recovery plan investing more money in infrastructure related to clean energy than any time we've ever done it,” Biden said, “my friend was introducing more coal mines and produced more coal around the world, according to the press, than all of great Britain produces. Now, I welcome him back into the fold here, and he's been there for a long while.”

Steyer decided not to fight back, and instead took the time to reiterate how important the issue is.

Gabbard v. Harris

The last time Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard crossed swords with Sen. Kamala Harris, she eviscerated the senator’s record as a California prosecutor and her position on marijuana.

On Wednesday, Harris got a chance to swipe back at Gabbard, who has since become a hero of Republican-leaning voters for her decision to criticize 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and their party.

“It is a party,” Gabbard said of the Democrats, “that has been and continues to be influenced by the foreign policy establishment in Washington represented by Hillary Clinton and others.” Gabbard said Americans “are calling for an end to this ongoing Bush-Clinton-Trump foreign policy doctrine of regime change wars, overthrowing dictators in other countries. “

Harris, given a chance to weigh in, said “it's unfortunate that we have someone on this stage that is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, who during the Obama administration spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing president Obama.”

Harris also said that Gabbard “buddied up to [former Trump adviser] Steve Bannon to get a meeting with Donald Trump in the trump tower, fails to call a war criminal by what he is, a war criminal. And then spends full time during the course of this campaign, again, criticizing the Democratic Party.”

Democrats respond to impeachment hearings

Wednesday’s headline-grabbing impeachment inquiry testimony from Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who repeatedly confirmed that the Trump Administration ultimately wanted an investigation of Biden in return for military aid, was used as a point of departure by Warren to speak against the corruption of the American political system — and swipe at her rivals.

“How did Ambassador Sondland get there?” Warren asked rhetorically. “You know, this is not a man who had any qualifications except one. He wrote a check for a million dollars. And that tells us about what's happening in Washington, the corruption. How money buys its way into Washington. You know, I raised this months ago about the whole notion that donors think they're going to get ambassadorships on the other side.”

Warren said she pledged to not allow that to happen, but noted none of her colleagues followed her lead.

Unlike Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar wouldn’t commit to voting to remove Trump is the House impeaches and there’s a trial in the Senate. Klobuchar drew a distinction by saying Trump should be impeached, but she needed to hear all the facts first before deciding whether to remove him from office.

Sen. Kamala Harris simply called Trump “a criminal in the White House” while Sanders pivoted from the topic.

“We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump. Because if we are, you know what? We're going to lose the election,” Sanders said, recounting the plight of people without health insurance or a roof over their heads.

“What the American people can understand is that the congress can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time,” Sanders said. “In other words, we can deal with Trump's corruption but we also have to stand up for the working families of this country.”

‘Lock him up!’

Trump’s crowds started it first: the chants of “lock her up” directed at Hillary Clinton and then “lock him up” directed at Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. But with six Trump associates and former campaign officials now convicted of crimes as he faces an impeachment inquiry, Democrats at Sanders’ rallies have started chanting of Trump, “lock him up.”

Should Democrats do this?

When asked that question and whether he was OK with it, Sanders didn’t really answer the question.

“I think the people of this country are catching on to the degree that this president thinks he is above the law. And what the American people are saying, nobody is above the law. And I think what the American people are also saying is, in fact, that if this president did break the law, he should be prosecuted like any other individual who breaks the law.”

For his part, Biden said he “would no direct the Justice Department like this president does. I'd let them make their independent judgment. I would not dictate who should be prosecuted or who should be exonerated. That's not the role of the president of the United States. It's the attorney general of the United States, not the president's attorney ... private attorney.”

Biden, however, said “I don't think it's a good idea that we model ourselves after Trump and say, ‘lock him up.’ Look, we have to bring this country together. Let's talk civilly to people.” Biden then briefly lost himself in his talking points about the need for civility and the importance of restoring “the soul of this country” before returning to the concept that the Justice Department should be independent.

Said Sanders: “I think Joe is right.”

Klobuchar, master of the joke

Sen. Amy Klobuchar drew contrasts with billionaire Tom Steyer and the surging Buttigieg by using humor. “While I appreciate his work,” she said of Steyer, “I am someone that doesn’t come from money. I see my husband out there. My first Senate race, I literally called everyone I knew and I set what is still an all-time Senate record: I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends. And I’d like to point out: It is not an expanding base.”

The debate crowd — and even some candidates on stage — burst into laughter.

Moments later, she clarified comments she had previously made on the campaign trail about Buttigieg’s thin resume. Klobuchar had suggested a woman with his level of experience wouldn’t be on this debate stage but clarified Wednesday that Buttigieg is qualified and she is “honored” to stand next to him.

“But what I said is true,” she continued. “Women are held to a higher standard. Otherwise we could play a game called ‘Name Your Favorite Woman President,’ which we can’t do because it has all been men.”

She concluded her response with another well-received zinger: “If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”

Harris, Yang whack Trump’s foreign policy

Democrats assailed Trump’s foreign policy record. In the words of Harris, “Donald Trump got punk’d” by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who secured a photo op at a summit with Trump in Singapore last year.

Harris said Trump’s foreign policy is “born out of a very fragile ego.” Citing Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal and remove U.S. troops from Syria, Harris labeled Trump “the greatest threat to the national security of our nation.”

Moments later, asked what he would tell Russian President Vladimir Putin in their first call should he become president, businessman Andrew Yang took a few moments to think. “Well, first, I’d say 'I’m sorry I beat your guy,' ” he said after a long pause. “Or not sorry.”

Trump has sought a friendly relationship with Putin, though the U.S. intelligence community has said Moscow interfered in the 2016 election to boost Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“And second,” Yang added, “I would say the days of meddling in American elections are over, and we will take any undermining of our democratic processes as an act of hostility and aggression.”

Joe Biden touts his electability

Biden fumbled his first answer, arguing that the Democratic nominee will need to be able to defeat Trump next fall and go into states like Georgia and North Carolina to help Democrats regain control of the Senate.

“That’s what I’ll do,” Biden said. “You have to ask yourself up here who is most likely to be able to win the nomination in the first place — to win the presidency in the first place. And secondly, who is most likely to increase the number of people who are Democrats in the House and in the Senate.”

Then he turned to impeachment, insisting that he learned during House Democrats’ hearings that Trump doesn’t want him to be the nominee. “That’s pretty clear,” he said. “He held up aid to make sure that while at the same time innocent people … are getting killed by Russian soldiers.”

Biden added that he also learned that Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t want him to be president. “So I’ve learned a lot about these hearings early on from these hearings that are being held,” he said, before closing with the suggestion that he is the one candidate who can help Democrats keep control of the House, win back the Senate and oust Trump from the White House.

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