MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) - With urgency rising in their nomination fight, the Democrats’ top presidential contenders clashed in a fiery debate Friday night over experience and ability to beat President Donald Trump.
The debate tested the strength of a new front-runner, former Midwestern mayor Pete Buttigieg, and struggling former Vice President Joe Biden as well as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Biden predicted he could “take a hit” in New Hampshire’s upcoming Democratic presidential primary.
But he also raised questions about Sanders’ status as a democratic socialist and warned Democratic voters that Trump and his allies would use the socialism label in congressional elections as well as the presidential voting.
Sanders opened Friday night’s debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, saying that he viewed energizing turnout as vital to a Democratic victory in November.
“No matter who wins this damned thing, we're all going to stand together to defeat Donald Trump,” he added.
Sanders was asked to respond to Trump's comments earlier this week to Fox News, when the president said, “I think of communism when I think of Bernie."
Asked if they had concerns about a top-of-the-ticket candidate with a "democratic socialist" moniker, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and businessman Tom Steyer raised their hands.
Neither Elizabeth Warren nor Pete Buttigieg is proving willing to criticize Sanders for embracing democratic socialism in the opening moments of the Democratic debate.
Warren, a Massachusetts senator, was asked about saying previously that she is “a capitalist to my bones.” But she refused to make a major contrast at Friday's debate in New Hampshire, saying only, “Bernie and I have been friends for a long time.”
Warren said the “fundamental question” is “how we bring our party together” and talked about fighting government corruption, saying it is “an issue we can all agree on.”
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said he wasn’t interested in labels like socialism. He and Sanders, a senator from Vermont, went on to clash on policy rather than on ideological labels.
Sanders says being a democratic socialist won’t make it harder to defeat President Donald Trump in November because “Donald Trump lies all the time” anyway.
Buttigieg says that the Obama administration met the moment of their day and “now we have to meet this moment."
Buttigieg sought to turn his relative lack of experience in politics into an advantage at Friday's Democratic debate in New Hampshire.
He was challenged by Joe Biden, who listed off some of his accomplishments during a long tenure in politics, including the Violence Against Women Act. Biden said, “I don't know what about the past of Barack Obama and Joe Biden was so bad” and called for “someone who knows how to get things done.”
In his reply, Buttigieg noted the accomplishments of the Obama administration and said that “now, we have to meet this moment.”
Biden and Buttigieg have previously clashed over a contrast in their ages and elected experience.
Klobuchar unloaded on Buttigieg for saying that watching the chaos in Washington almost made him want to change the channel to cartoons.
“It’s easy to go after Washington,” she said Friday, but “it’s much harder to lead.”
Klobuchar took Buttigieg to task especially for his mockery of the Senate impeachment proceedings. She noted the “courageous” votes of Democratic Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and Republican Utah Sen. Mitt Romney. Both men voted to convict Trump — Romney on one count — and remove him from office.
In her sharpest blow, Klobuchar implicitly compared Buttigieg’s argument to the man Democrats hope to topple in November. “We have a newcomer in the White House now, and look where it got us,” she said. “I think having some experience is a good thing.”
Biden is cautioning against pulling American troops entirely out of Afghanistan, saying such actions can lead to regional instability.
He recalled the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, saying troops were “ashamed” to leave while the Kurds asked Americans to stay.
Biden was responding to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's remark that "it's time to bring our troops home" from Afghanistan, a position she has voiced in previous debates.
Warren reaffirmed her recent comments about what she sees as a lack of a clear plan for withdrawal, noting she would listen to generals as the nation's commander in chief but would seek to “work with our allies in managing terrorism.”
Noting her service on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Warren said she has visited combat zones with Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and the late Arizona Sen. John McCain.
The candidates agreed that they’d appoint Supreme Court justices who’d uphold the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, but there are distinctions on whether to try to expand the size of the court.
Pete Buttigieg wants to expand the court through a constitutional amendment while also changing the way justices are selected. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, disputed that his idea amounts to packing the court.
But former Vice President Joe Biden said any plan to expand the court is a bad idea. Biden noted that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg holds the same position.
Biden and billionaire businessman Tom Steyer said the argument over the court shows how important it is for Democrats to win enough Senate seats to retake a majority. Biden argued that he’s the only Democratic candidate who’d have a coattail effect for Senate candidates in battleground states and GOP-leaning states like North Carolina and Georgia.
The candidates brought a renewed intensity to Friday night’s debate following the chaotic results of the Iowa caucuses.
This is the final debate before next week’s first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary.