Joe Biden angrily clashed with many of his Democratic rivals – among them progressives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – as the former vice president fought to hold on to his status as frontrunner in the fight to take on Donald Trump.
On a night that had been much hyped as the moment the 76-year-old would for the first time come under attack from the Massachusetts senator, Mr Biden sought to take the fight to her and Mr Sanders on the issue of healthcare, aware that many in the party had slammed his first two debate performances.
“I know that the senator says she’s for Bernie. Well I’m for Barack. I think Obamacare worked,” Mr Biden said at one point. “This is about candour, honesty, big ideas.”
Ms Warren responded: “The question is how best can we improve on it.” With one of the best one-liners of the evening, she added: “I’ve never actually met anybody who likes their health insurance company.”
When Mr Sanders, who frequently adopts a habit of delivering the same answer regardless of the question he is asked, was asked whey he would not describe Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro as a “dictator”, the senator almost snorted.
“In terms of democratic socialism, to equate what goes on in Venezuela with what I believe is extremely unfair,” he said. “I agree with [what] goes on in Canada and Scandinavia, guaranteeing health care to all people as a human right. I believe that the United States should not be the only major country on earth not to provide paid family and medical leave.”
Mr Biden did not have the strongest performance of the ten candidates on the stage at Texas Southern University; that distinction probably belonged to Ms Warren or Beto O’Rourke, who appeared reinvigorated and impassioned as he demanded action on gun control to tackle the nation’s plague of massing shootings, and denounced the racism coming from the Oval Office he believed has fuelled some of those incidents.
“We have a white supremacist in the White House and he represents a mortal threat to the nation,” said Mr O’Rourke, who was last month visibly moved by the mass shooting at a Walmart in his home town of El Paso. He repeated a pledge that as president he would ban weapons such as semi-automatic AR-15 rifles, and oversee a forced buy-back from the government.
“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15,” he said.
Yet by the low bar Mr Biden had set for himself – at one point he referred to Mr Sanders as “the president” – he will have considered his performance in Houston, a place where he first debated in 1987 during his maiden presidential run, to have been a success. Aware that he was likely to come under fire from anyone on the stage, he looked less frozen and startled.
He also repeatedly referred to his work as vice president of Barack Obama, a strategy he believes will appear to those voters looking for experience amid the perceived chaos of the Trump administration. In a moment that highlighted Mr Biden’s age, at one point he referred to helping motivate children to learn by getting them listening to a “record player”.
Amy Klobuchar, a senator from Minnesota who has portrayed herself as someone who can bridge extremes within the party, failed to make much traction. Andrew Yang was also unable to grab as many of the speaking opportunities as he might have done, but when he spoke it was thoughtful.
During his opening statement, the tech entrepreneur said he was planning a giveaway in which 10 families would receive $120,000 over the next year – a beta trial of his signature universal basic income initiative, in which every citizen over 18 would receive $1,000 per month.
“It’s time to stop trusting politicians and start trusting ourselves – so I’m going to do something unprecedented tonight,” Mr Yang said.
At one point, Mr Castro, who served in Mr Obama’s administration as a housing secretary, appeared to make a jab at Mr Biden’s age, and accused him of flip-flopping in his description of his own health care plan. “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” asked the 44-year-old Mr Castro, another Texan.
When Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, highlighted the clash, saying it was what so many Americans did lot like about politicians, Mr Castro punched straight back. He said: “That’s called an election.”
Additional reporting by agencies
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