By John Whitesides and Amanda Becker
DETROIT (Reuters) – Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden and rival Kamala Harris battled over healthcare and came under attack from other candidates on their criminal justice records in a contentious and sometimes angry debate on Wednesday.
On the second of back-to-back nights of debates among Democrats seeking the chance to face Republican President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election, Biden and Harris were at the centre of a growing fight over healthcare that has split the Democratic Party and dominated the first candidate encounter in Detroit on Tuesday.
Biden, who struck a sharper and more aggressive tone than in the first debate, ridiculed Harris’ contention that her recently unveiled healthcare plan would not require a middle-class tax increase or eliminate private insurance plans.
“You can’t beat President Trump with double-talk on this plan,” Biden told Harris. “The plan no matter how you cut it costs $3 trillion. It will require middle-class taxes to go up, not down. Thirdly, it will eliminate employer-based insurance.”
Harris rejected Biden’s description as “simply inaccurate” and ripped into his proposal to build on former President Barack Obama’s healthcare plan, popularly known as Obamacare, and include a government-run option, saying it would leave millions uninsured.
“In 2019 in America for a Democrat to be running for president with a plan that does not cover everyone, I think is without excuse,” said Harris, a U.S. senator.
Harris was on the defensive about her healthcare plan early in the debate, with others including U.S. Senator Michael Bennet chiming in with criticism.
“We need to be honest about what’s in this plan,” Bennet said. “It bans employer-based insurance and taxes the middle class.”
Harris also came under fire from U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who questioned her criminal justice record when she served as attorney general in California.
“I’m deeply concerned about this record. There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations then laughed about it when asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” Gabbard said.
The heavy focus on Biden and Harris was an acknowledgment of her rise into the top tier of the crowded Democratic field of about two dozen candidates seeking the party’s presidential nomination.
After a debate on Tuesday that featured progressive leaders Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren defending their policies against criticism from more moderate rivals, the encounter on Wednesday focused more often on criticism of Trump and the best route to challenging him in 2020.
The fireworks in the debate had been building for weeks, as Biden engaged in an escalating fight with Harris and U.S. Senator Cory Booker for the support of black voters, a vital constituency in the Democratic nominating battle.
During the candidate introductions on Wednesday, Biden told Harris to “go easy on me, kid.” His comment was picked up by a microphone.
Biden was flanked at centre stage by Harris and Booker, the most prominent black contenders in a Democratic nominating contest in which race has played a prominent role.
He cited that diversity on stage in his opening statement, contrasting it with Trump’s recent attacks on Democratic minority lawmakers that have been widely criticized as racist.
“Mr. President, this is America, and we are strong and great because of this diversity, Mr. President, not in spite of it,” he said to Trump.
“Let’s get something straight, we love it, we’re not leaving it, we’re here to stay and we’re certainly not leaving it here to you,” said Biden, who was vice president under Obama, the first black U.S. president.
Trump raised a firestorm this month when he tweeted that four progressive U.S. Democratic representatives should “go back” to where they came from, even though all are U.S. citizens and three are U.S.-born.
Booker renewed his criticism of Biden’s work as a senator on the 1994 crime bill, which critics say led to the disproportionate imprisonment of African-American men.
Biden fired back, criticizing Booker’s tenure as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, where he led a police department that became embroiled in a federal civil rights investigation.
“You want to compare records, and frankly I’m shocked that you do,” Booker told Biden.
He also chided Biden for his frequent references to serving under Obama after the vice president refused to disclose the advice he had given Obama.
“You can’t have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not,” he said.
Harris also repeated her criticism of Biden for working with segregationists while serving in the U.S. Senate decades ago.
“Had those segregationists had their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate, Cory Booker would not be a member of the United States Senate and Barack Obama would not have been in a position to nominate him to the place he holds,” she said.
Biden responded with a shot at Harris’ record as California’s top law enforcement officer.
“When Senator Harris was the attorney general for eight years in the state of California, there were two of the most segregated school districts in the country, in Los Angeles and in San Francisco,” he said. “I didn’t see a single solitary time she brought a case against them to desegregate.”
The debates come about six months before Iowa holds the first nominating contest, and the two nights in Detroit could be the last chance for many of the lower-tier contenders to make an appearance on the national debate stage.
The Democratic National Committee will double its fundraising and polling requirements to qualify for the next debates in September and October, leaving out more candidates and raising questions about their ability to continue their campaigns.
So far, only about a third of the field has met the qualifications.
(Reporting by John Whitesides and Amanda Becker; Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)