Speaking at the party’s fifth debate in Atlanta, Bernie Sanders warned that if Democrats became simply consumed by the president they would “lose the election”.
Yet on a day when Washington DC and beyond was gripped by impeachment testimony from a US ambassador that not only laid the demand for a quid pro quo at the feet of the president, but also at his vice president, secretary of state and chief of staff, it was never likely that the topic of the existential threat to Mr Trump would be far from the debate stage.
Asked if, having watched Wednesday’s powerful testimony from the US’s EU ambassador, Gordon Sondland, she would urge Republicans in the Senate to vote to remove Mr Trump, Elizabeth Warren said she would.
“We have to establish the principle that no one is above the law, we have a constitutional responsibility and we need to meet it,” said Ms Warren, who is among the party’s frontrunners.
Kamala Harris, also a member of the Senate, said Mr Sondland had highlighted there was a “criminal enterprise engaged in by the president”.
“We have a criminal living in the White House. And there is no question that in 2020 the biggest issue before us until we get to that tender moment is justice on the ballot,” she said.
Mr Sanders weighed in. “He is likely the most corrupt president in the modern history of America,” he said. “But we cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump. Because if we are, we are going to lose the election.”
The question underscored a pressing challenge for every Democrat seeking to win the nomination for 2020; while they cannot afford not to support impeaching the president, having spent so much time outside of the Washington DC bubble, and speaking to ordinary Americans, they also know how divisive the issue will become.
Polls suggest that while a majority of Americans may support impeachment, there are few – even among Democrats – for whom it is the most pressing priority.
When Democrats retook control of the House in the 2018 midterms, they did so by focusing on issues such healthcare and the economy, rather than impeachment, something that was at the forefront of the mind of House speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Not surprisingly, another issue that received much focus was healthcare. Ms Warren defended her proposal to tax higher earners and corporations in order to pay for universal healthcare, as part of her Medicare for All plan.
“I’m tired of freeloading billionaires,” said Ms Warren, whose proposal has prompted contentious responses from several prominent billionaires in recent weeks.
“Regardless of party affiliation, people understand across this country, our government is working better and better for the billionaires, for the rich, for the well connected, and worse and worse for everyone else.”
Yet Joe Biden, who with Ms Warren has been among the most persistent frontrunners, suggested “the vast majority” of Democrats did not support it.
“Right now, with Democrats, they couldn’t pass the House. Nancy Pelosi is one of those people who think it doesn’t make sense,” said Mr Biden, who often reminds voters of the eight years he served as Barack Obama’s vice president. “We should build on Obamacare.”
He also had a message for those suggesting the Democratic Party was in trouble.
“There has never ever, ever, been a time where we set our mind to do something we’ve been unable to do it,” he said in one of his most impressive moments. “Never, never, never. Get up, let’s take back our country and lead the world again.”
Senator Cory Booker said he agreed on the need to make the tax system more fair, but added: “I don’t agree with the wealth tax the way Elizabeth Warren puts it.”
Later, he said of the challenge facing the party as it sought to select a candidate: “This is the moment in America where we need a leader that can inspire us.“
Pete Buttigieg, the moderate mayor of a small town in Indiana who has stormed to the top of polls in Iowa, the first state to vote, and which holds its primary, or caucuses, on February 3, made an appeal for unity.
“As president Obama commented recently, we are not in a different reality than we were even 12 years ago,” he said. “There is an American majority that stands ready to tackle big issues that didn’t exist in the same way even a few years ago.”
He added: “I know that from the perspective of Washington, what goes on in my city might look small, but frankly where we live, the infighting on Capitol Hill is what looks small.”
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, and Tulsi Gabbard had reasonably quiet nights, the format once again deadening any serious efforts to debate policy.
Amy Klobuchar was asked about her previous comment that a woman with Mr Buttigieg’s experience would not have made it to the debate stage. While she said Mr Buttigieg was qualified, she reiterated her argument that women were held to a higher standard.
To loud applause, she said: “Otherwise, we could play a game called ‘Name your favourite woman president’, which we can’t do.”
Later, she added: “I want us to remember that this election is, yes, an economic check on this president and I have bold ideas that we can do to move forward as a country to make college more affordable and bring down the cost of healthcare, yes. This is also a patriotism check. A value check. A decency check.”
Additional reporting by agencies
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