Democratic debate: Candidates spar over impeachment, health care, taxes

WESTERVILLE, Ohio -- Democrats in Tuesday's largest-ever presidential debate lined up in favor of President Donald Trump's impeachment, hammering him for what they called corruption and lawlessness.

"Sometimes there are issues that are bigger than politics," Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said impeachment was the only choice for "the most corrupt president in the history of this country."

Former Vice President Joe Biden added, "I agree with Bernie, Sen. Sanders," and the rest of the crowded field followed suit.

Later in the debate, the three oldest candidates in the Democratic field faced questions over their age.

Bernie Sanders is the oldest candidate at 78 and just returned to the campaign trail after suffering a heart attack. He declined to answer when asked how he would reassure Americans of his good health, saying only that he would run a "vigorous campaign all over this country."

Seventy-six-year-old Joe Biden argued that his experience and wisdom are assets because "I know what has to be done" as president. He also promised to release his medical records before the first nominating contest in Iowa in February.

And Elizabeth Warren, who's 70 years old, promised to outwork, out-organize and outlast anyone, including the Republicans.

At another point, some of the Democratic rivals sprang against Warren when she repeatedly refused to say whether she'd raise taxes on the middle class to pay for her Medicare for All health insurance plan. It was the most striking confrontation so far among the candidates to take on Republican President Donald Trump next year.

Warren, pressed as to whether taxes would go up to pay for her plan, responded, "So, I have made clear what my principles are here. And that is costs will go up for the wealthy and for big corporations, and for hard-working middle-class families costs will go down." But she would not say the same for taxes.

More moderate Democrats - including Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar pushed for a more restrained approach that would stop short of fully government funded health care.

"I appreciate Elizabeth's work but, again, the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something you can actually get done," Klobuchar said. Added Buttigieg: "We heard it tonight. A yes or no question that didn't get a yes or no answer." He said he wanted a plan that could be summed up as Medicare for All if you choose it, not whether you want it or not.

Many of the Democrats seeking the White House say they would lead administrations that would go after drug companies that manufacture addictive opioid medications.

California Sen. Kamala Harris said she would prosecute pharmaceutical executives as "high-level dope dealers" for peddling what they knew to be dangerously addictive medications. Former Obama Housing Secretary Julián Castro said drug companies need to "be held accountable."

That sentiment was backed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who said the companies' actions are evidence of "what unfettered capitalism is doing to this country" by way of the massive profits made by pharmaceutical companies.

Businessman Andrew Yang and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke said they support decriminalizing small amounts of opioid drugs as a way to promote safe use.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg sparred with Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, calling her "dead wrong" for her earlier support of withdrawing troops from Syria.

Gabbard's previous stance, as well as her decision to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad, came under fresh scrutiny following President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the country, paving the way for Turkey to invade and kill the Kurds.

Gabbard has criticized Trump for how he's conducted the withdrawal but said Tuesday that while Trump has "the blood of the Kurds on his hands ... so do many of the politicians in both parties who supported this regime change war."

Buttigieg says the killings are "the consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values."

Both Buttigieg and Gabbard are military veterans.

Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and Buttigieg exchanged sharp words over O'Rourke's proposed mandatory buyback of assault rifles.

Buttigieg last week criticized the idea as a "shiny object" that distracts from more achievable efforts such as universal background checks and banning the sale of the weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Buttigieg criticized O'Rourke as not having a plan for how the buyback would work.

O'Rourke said the different ideas are not mutually exclusive. He says gun violence "is a crisis and we gotta do something about it." O'Rourke says candidates should listen to victims, not polls, consultants and focus groups.

Buttigieg shot back, saying, "I don't need lessons from you on courage, political or personal."

The exchanges played out during the Democrats' fourth debate, the 12 candidates lining up as the most ever on one stage. Warren's emerging status as a leading candidate could be measured by the attacks on her policies ranging from Medicare for All to her questioning of the role of automation in job losses.

Former Vice President Joe Biden also faced questions about Trump's baseless charges that he and his son profited improperly from overseas work.

"My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong," Biden said. "My son made a judgment. I'm proud of the judgment he made," he said before pivoting to Trump's "corruption."

Biden has been at the top of the crowded field for months but is having to answer persistent questions about his 49-year-old son, Hunter. Warren has climbed to co-front runner is likely to face new questions about a key piece of the biographical story she tells voters, being fired from a teaching job nearly five decades ago for being "visibly pregnant."

And Sanders is out to prove he has the stamina for hours on stage, less than two weeks after a heart attack forced him to temporarily suspend campaigning.

The other candidates struggling just to get noticed - trying to make up ground in a race that kicks off officially in just over three months with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.

Hosted by CNN and The New York Times, the field's fourth round of debates comes as the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump has grabbed most of the nation's political attention and left the Democratic race for the White House largely overshadowed.

It took place on the campus of Otterbein University, just outside Columbus in Ohio, one of the nation's toughest electoral battlegrounds, but also a state that has long helped decide presidential elections but has drifted away from Democrats in recent years.

Without providing evidence, Trump has repeatedly said that Biden's son improperly profited from work in Ukraine and China while the elder Biden was vice president. The president also insists that Biden used his office to protect his son from allegations of wrongdoing.

Biden's Democratic rivals have united in criticizing Trump, but the 76-year-old former vice president himself is facing pressure to provide explanations.

So likely will Warren, 70. She's faced questions from opponents about if she was actually forced from her teaching job because of a pregnancy nearly a half century ago, a claim that has become a core part of her personal message. Critics have pointed to past speeches and documents that suggest she left on her own. Warren is standing by her story.

The 78-year-old Sanders, meanwhile, spent most of the last two week recuperating in Vermont after doctors inserted two stents put in to clear a clogged artery. He's planning to use the debate to show he's fully recovered before formally rejoin the race with a rally in New York on Saturday.

Buttigieg and California Sen. Kamala Harris are trying to crack the field's top tier.

Also debating were New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Obama housing chief Julián Castro and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Making his debate debut is billionaire activist Tom Steyer.
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