MIAMI — Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden slapped down a younger rival who urged him to “pass the torch,” putting the generational rift in the party at center stage in the Democratic presidential debate Thursday.
Rep. Eric Swalwell of California used his first turn in the debate spotlight to recall how he first became interested in politics as a 6-year-old boy after hearing a Democratic politician call for the “passing of the torch” to a new generation.
He identified that politician as Mr. Biden and then called on the now 76-year-old former vice president to follow his own advice.”I’m holding onto that torch,” shot back Mr. Biden, drawing laughs from the crowd.
It also one of several times the Democratic hopefuls traded sharp jabs over health care, taxes and how far to the left the party should move.
In another feisty exchange, Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California challenged Mr. Biden to defend his 1970s opposition to busing children to integrate public schools, an issue that has dogged Mr. Biden with a Democratic base that is heavily nonwhite.
“Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America,” said Ms. Harris, who is black and recalled how as a girl she was bused to integrate California public schools.
Mr. Biden said he opposed the Department of Education playing a larger role in busing, and blamed her city council for opposing the efforts on a local level.
“That is where the federal government must step in,” she said. “There are moments in history where states fail to protect the civil rights of all people”
As the front-runner, Mr. Biden walked onto the stage with a big target on his back and the most to lose in the first faceoff with his lesser-known rivals.
Expectations have been high for Barack Obama’s former sidekick since even before he formally threw his hat into the ring. Mr. Biden has sat atop the polls with a wide lead since joining the crowded field in late April.
But he has been plagued by missteps and gaffes. He suffered criticism about his handsy treatment of women, flip-flopping on his longtime opposition to taxpayer funding of abortion, and fond recollections about his working relationships with staunch segregationist Democratic senators in the 1970s, including joking about their use of the racially charged epithet “boy.”
The debate served as a crucial test for him to show he still at the top of his game. Several times, Mr. Biden answered wandered but at other times his answers were sharp.
Other also were playing defense.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, who is 77 but champion of the party’s energetic far-left wing, came under fire for his push for a Medicare for All government-run health care system and a slew of other new benefits that would require higher taxes.
Pressed by the moderators, Mr. Sanders conceded that his plans for Medicare for All government-run health care and other benefits would require a tax increases for the middle class.
“People who have health care under Medicare for All — no premiums, no deductible, no co-payment, no added out-of-pocket expenses — yes they will pay more in taxes, but less in health care,” he said.
The 10 candidates on the stage for the second night of debate found key areas of agreement: They all despised President Trump and they all wanted more rights for illegal immigrants.
All the Democrats on the stage raised their hands to show that they would grant government health insurance to illegal immigrants, plowing new ground well beyond the boundaries of Obamacare.
“Our country is healthier when everybody is healthier,” said Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Even Mr. Biden said he would extend coverage to illegal immigrants — a reversal from his stance in the Obama administration, when Democrats considered and specifically rejected the idea as too controversial and unfair.
“You cannot let people who are sick, no matter where they come from, no matter what their status, go uncovered,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s the humane thing to do.”
The episode caught the attention of Mr. Trump, who was watching the debate while attending a G20 economic summit in South Korea.
“All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare,” he tweeted. “How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!”
The president was on the minds of the Democratic hopefuls.
The candidates on stage embodied various fissures in the Democratic Party. They stood on opposing sides of a generational divide and an ideological split between Mr. Biden’s moderate brand and Mr. Sanders’ democratic socialist policies that have pushed the party to the far left.
The party, however, remained unified in its fierce disgust of Mr. Trump and a determination to oust him in November 2020.
The Democratic National Committee capped the number of candidates in the debates at 20 and split them between two nights, with randomly selected 10 candidates on stage each night.
That left five candidates watching from the sidelines.
They were joined by New Age guru Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Mr. Swalwell.
In Wednesday night’s debate, sparks flew between some of the candidates, but they refrained from jabs at Mr. Biden.
The fireworks, however, illuminated the same divisions on the second night, including how far left to go with government-run health care, immigration and free tuition at public colleges.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren took the center podium on the first night. She was flanked by former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, and Sens. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. On the edges of the stage Wednesday stood New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, former Obama administration Housing Secretary Julian Castro, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
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