Election 2020 Debate

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., center speaks as Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, left and Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg listen during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

WASHINGTON — Democrats spent more time making the case for their ability to beat President Donald Trump than trying to defeat each other in their fifth debate.

Civil in tone, mostly cautious in approach, the forum on Wednesday did little to reorder the field and may have given encouragement to two new entrants into the race, Mike Bloomberg and Deval Patrick.

The impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump took up much of the oxygen early in the debate.

The questions about impeachment did little to create much separation in a field that universally condemns the Republican president.

The candidates tried mightily to pivot to their agenda. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren talked about how a major Trump donor became the ambassador at the heart of the Ukraine scandal and reiterated her vow to not award ambassadorships to donors. Former Vice President Joe Biden tried to tout the investigation as a measure of how much Trump fears his candidacy.

The climate crisis, which Democratic voters cite as a top concern, finally gained at least some attention.

There were flashes of the debate Wednesday night, as billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer swiped at Biden by suggesting the former vice president wants an inadequate, piecemeal approach to the crisis. Biden hit right back, reminding Steyer that he sponsored climate legislation as a senator in the 1980s while Steyer built his fortune in part on investments in coal.

Buttigieg turned a question about the effects of Trump’s policies on farmers into a call for the U.S. agriculture sector to become a key piece of an emissions-free economy.

But those details seem less important than the overall exchange — or lack thereof. Perhaps it’s the complexities of the policies involved. Or perhaps it’s just the politics. Whatever the case, the remaining field simply doesn’t seem comfortable or willing to push climate policy to the forefront, and debate moderators don’t either.

Before every debate, Democratic presidential campaigns aides lay out nuanced, focused arguments their candidates surely will make on the stage. And every debate seems to evolve quickly into an argument over health care.

So it was again. Within minutes of the start, Warren found herself on the defensive as she explained she still supports a single-payer government run insurance system — “Medicare for All” — despite her recent modified proposal to get there in phases. Not to be outdone, Sanders reminded people that he’s the original Senate sponsor of the “Medicare for All” bill that animates progressives. “I wrote the damn bill,” he quipped. Again.

Biden jumped in to remind his more liberal rivals that their ideas would not pass in Congress. The former vice president touted his commitment to adding a government insurance plan to existing Affordable Care Act exchanges that now sell private insurance policies.

The debate highlights a fundamental tension for candidates: Democratic voters identify health care as their top domestic policy concern, but they also tell pollsters their top political priority in the primary campaign is finding a nominee who can defeat Trump.

The top contenders did nothing to settle the argument Wednesday, instead offering evidence that the ideological tug-of-war will remain until someone wins enough delegates to claim the nomination.

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