Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg have clashed over who is funding their presidential campaigns, with the South Bend mayor accusing his rival of issuing “purity tests” she could not match, and the Massachusetts senator attacking him for holding events in caves bedecked with “$900 bottles of wine”.
In exchanges between the two candidates who have challenged each other for frontrunner status and who represent different ideological strands of the party, Ms Warren laid into Mr Buttigieg for holding closed-door fund-raising events where he spent time “with millionaires or billionaires”.
Referring to a now-infamous fundraising event Mr Buttigieg held at a winery in California’s Napa Valley, Ms Warren asked voters to consider who attends events where such expensive wine is served.
“We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States,” she said.
“Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”
Mr Buttigieg was quick to fire back, pointing to a Forbes magazine article that said he was the only individual among the seven on stage who was not a “millionaire or a billionaire”.
“So, this is important. This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass,” he said. “Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine. Suppose you went home and felt the holiday spirit – I know this isn’t likely, but stay with me – and decided to go on PeteButtigieg.com and gave the maximum donation allowable by law, would that pollute my campaign because it came from a wealthy person? No. I would be glad to have that support.”
The back-and-forth between the two marked one of the few tense moments of the night. That may have reflected the fact that the debate in Los Angeles, the sixth the party has held as it seeks to select a presidential candidate, was held just a day after Donald Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives.
The issue of impeachment was quickly covered with all seven candidates – also on stage were Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobahcar, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer – saying they applauded the move.
Yet Mr Yang, the only candidate of colour participating in the debate – indeed, there was more diversity among the journalistic questioners than the candidates – warned that Democrats may be overthinking that issue, compared to most Americans.
“We have to stop being obsessed over impeachment, which unfortunately strikes many Americans like a ball game where you know what the score is going to be, and start actually digging in and solving the problems that got Donald Trump elected in the first place,” he said.
Ahead of Thursday’s debate at Loyola Marymount University, a CNN poll placed Mr Biden at the front of the pack on 26 points, followed by Mr Sanders on 20, Ms Warren on 16, Mr Buttigieg on 8, and latecomer Michael Bloomberg on 5.
In Iowa, the first state to vote and which holds its primary on 3 February, Ms Klobuchar has steadily improved her standing, moving into what she has termed a “solid fifth”, as she has protected herself as a compromise candidate lodged somewhere between the party’s two edges.
To date, her debates performances have not been remarkable. On Thursday, with fewer people on the stage, she took the opportunity to secure some headlines by again attacking Mr Buttigieg over his lack of experience, and for criticising the other candidates’ work in Washington.
“The point is, we should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won and been able to show that they’ve gathered the support that you talk about of moderate Republicans and independents,” said the Minnesota senator. “I think a track record of getting things done matters.”
Mr Buttigieg, who found himself under attack from several quarters, jabbed back.
“If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 per cent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana,” he said.
Mr Biden and Mr Sanders had steady evenings, with the former vice president not making any major slips, something that has marred some of his previous performances.
Asked about recent comments by Barack Obama that there would be less problems in the world if there were more women leaders and fewer “old men”, he responded: “I’m going to guess he wasn’t talking about me either.”
Yet, Mr Biden again dodged a question about whether he was prepared to commit to serving two terms if he won, something that would take him into his 80s. “I’m not even elected one term yet, let’s see where we are. Let’s see what happens.”
When it was pointed to Ms Warren she would also be the “oldest president ever inaugurated” if elected, she had a very sharp response. “I’d also be the youngest woman ever inaugurated.”
Billionaire Mr Steyer, who has been criticised for spending millions of dollars of his own money to gain enough name recognition to qualify for the debate, had his strongest moment when talking about climate change.
He said focusing on clean energy development could be a major driver of economic growth. “This is our greatest opportunity to reinvent this country,” he said.
The climate change crisis is an issue on which Mr Sanders has also been outspoken. He was so again in Los Angeles.
“Just maybe, instead of spending $1.8 trillion a year globally on weapons of destruction, maybe an American president – i.e Bernie Sanders – can lead the world,” he said of himself.
“Instead of spending money to kill each other, maybe we pool our resources and fight our common enemy, which is climate change.”
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