Democrats Diverge on Economy and Immigration in First Debate

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MIAMI — Democratic presidential candidates leveled a stark critique of President Trump’s management of the American economy and immigration system in the first primary debate on Wednesday, but split in unmistakable terms over just how aggressively the next president should seek to transform the country along far more liberal lines.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts set the tone for the party’s progressive wing, declaring in her first answer of the night that the economy was tilted overwhelmingly toward the wealthy, diagnosing that as “corruption, pure and simple.” She was joined by two other lesser known candidates seeking to grab attention — Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York — in challenging other candidates from the left on matters like health care and border control.

“We need to attack it head on,” Ms. Warren said in reference to what she described as a rigged system. “And we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy and in our country.”

But others candidates proceeded more cautiously: Without criticizing Ms. Warren or other liberal populists by name, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota suggested that certain ambitious progressive plans — to provide free college tuition, for instance, or to treat unlawful border crossings as a civil rather than criminal offense — might go too far.

And Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, while endorsing broad liberal aims, suggested he would take a determined but pragmatic approach to pursuing goals like the creation of a single-payer health care system.

The debate, the first of two featuring 10 candidates each, underscored just how sharply to the left Democrats have veered since Mr. Trump’s election. On a range of issues including immigration, health care, gun control and foreign policy, they demonstrated that they were far more uneasy about being perceived as insufficiently progressive by primary voters than about inviting Republican attacks in the general election.

At times the forum became a free-for-all of cross talk between candidates desperate to wedge their personalities and signature ideas into brief snippets of television airtime. But even the disagreements were squarely over matters of policy substance: There were no personal attacks or criticisms of character, and nothing resembling the Trump-style personal taunts that came to define the last crowded presidential primary, waged among Republicans in 2016.

There were Democrats boasting about their executive résumés — Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington trumpeted the laws he had personally enacted as governor, on matters like health care and abortion rights — and those who focused on sharing aspects of their personal biographies; Ms. Klobuchar, for instance, spoke of her father attending community college.

Perhaps mindful of the debate’s South Florida venue, several took pains to flaunt their Spanish-language skills, particularly when it came time to discuss immigration. Among those were Mr. Booker, Mr. Castro and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas.

“The situation now is unacceptable,” Mr. Booker said in Spanish, of the crisis unfolding on the Mexican border. “This president has attacked, he has demonized immigrants. I am going to change this.”

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CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

After drawing little notice initially, Mr. Booker offered a series of commanding answers in the second hour of the two-hour debate on issues such as guns and L.G.B.T. rights, and he repeatedly highlighted his residency in heavily black Newark.

Mr. Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, dominated the segment devoted to immigration, repeatedly promoting his proposal to decriminalize illegal immigration — a policy that Ms. Warren has adopted in recent days and that Republicans have gleefully highlighted to argue that Democrats support open borders.

Turning to Mr. O’Rourke, whose unsuccessful 2018 Senate bid and presidential candidacy have overshadowed him, Mr. Castro asked his fellow Texan why he would not support making illegal immigration a civil offense.

“I just think it’s a mistake, Beto,” said Mr. Castro.

Mr. O’Rourke noted that he had introduced legislation in Congress to decriminalize “those seeking asylum” and said that he had unveiled comprehensive immigration overhaul.

But Mr. Castro interjected that it was not sufficient to only relieve those seeking asylum from criminal penalty, because many of those charged for crossing the border illegally are “undocumented immigrants.”

Mr. Booker made clear that he sided with Mr. Castro on the question, an illustration of the party’s shifting center of gravity on perhaps the dominant issue of the Trump era.

While the candidates looking to break out, and at least prolong their candidacies into fall, were most eager to confront others on stage, the better-known and better-financed contenders were less eager to duel with one another.

When the debate turned to tech companies, Mr. Booker stopped short of endorsing Ms. Warren’s call to break up the biggest firms, like Facebook and Google, while saying it was clear that the economy “is not working for average Americans.”

When Mr. Booker was reminded that he had attacked Ms. Warren this year for naming some of the corporations she would break up, he retreated. “I don’t think we disagree,” he said, adding that he also felt strongly about “the need to check corporate consolidation.”

Mr. O’Rourke also declined to hit back when he found himself under attack, first by Mr. de Blasio and then by Mr. Castro.

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CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

When the moderators asked the 10 candidates which of them would support eliminating private health insurance as part of a single-payer health care plan, only Ms. Warren and Mr. de Blasio raised their hands.

“How can you defend a system that’s not working?” Mr. de Blasio demanded of Mr. O’Rourke.

Ms. Warren won loud applause from the audience when she called health care “a human right” and, without mentioning any of her rival’s names, said that those against “Medicare for all’’ were really telling Americans that “they just won’t fight for it.”

Ms. Klobuchar, however, did not back off.

“I am just simply concerned about kicking half of Americans off their health insurance in just four years,” she said, linking her more incremental approach to that of former President Barack Obama.

The third-term senator from Minnesota was the most firm in staking her claim to moderate terrain and also got off a handful of one-liners that drew applause and laughs.

When Mr. Inslee boasted about his record in support of abortion rights, Ms. Klobuchar noted the gender diversity of the candidates on stage.

“I want to say there’s three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” she said.

And she scorched Mr. Trump for his erratic tweets. ”I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at 5:00 in the morning,” she said.

There was little discussion of foreign policy until near the end of the debate when two little-known House lawmakers, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Tim Ryan of Ohio, clashed over how aggressively to target the Taliban.

Mr. de Blasio was the most aggressive candidate when it came to confronting to his rivals on stage. But it was unclear if the New York mayor, who polls indicate is disliked by those Democrats who have heard him, would reap the benefit from his carrying the liberal banner.

For the most part, though, the contenders trumpeted their own proposals and résumés while training their fire on Mr. Trump and Republican economic policies, which they said were favoring the wealthy.

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CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

“He says wind turbines cause cancer, we know they cause jobs,” Mr. Inslee said.

The debate came at a moment when party activists were unified on the urgency of ejecting Mr. Trump from the White House but deeply divided over the best approach.

Dating to the day after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, when millions of women marched in American cities, Democratic contempt for the president has produced a supercharged liberal activism — and prompted a new level of engagement culminating in last year’s elections, which saw the largest turnout for a midterm campaign in a half-century.

This energy has carried over into 2019, as many of the Democratic hopefuls have attracted unusually large crowds at early rallies and forums, large numbers of small-dollar donors and hundreds of volunteers who are already following every dip and rise in the race.

[We tracked down the 2020 Democrats and asked them the same set of questions. Watch them answer.]

But for many of the party’s primary voters, the back-to-back debates represented their first extended look at the Democrats’ historically large, and diverse, field.

So far, the race has been chiefly defined by a central question: Should Democrats rally behind former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a moderate who is the field’s best-known candidate, or find a more progressive alternative. While Mr. Biden has proved to be resilient in the polls since entering the race in April, thanks in large part to his appeal with older and moderate Democrats, he is a fragile front-runner and has already seen his advantage ebb in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has retained much of the grass-roots and financial network that powered him to unexpected success in the 2016 Democratic race, but he has struggled to expand his appeal beyond his committed supporters.

That is in part because the party’s left flank now has a wealth of alternatives, including Ms. Warren, who has recently surged in a number of surveys after months of laying out a series of ambitious policy proposals. But not all of these candidates will be on the same stage this week.

[The latest data and analysis to keep track of who’s leading the race to be the Democratic nominee.]

For Wednesday’s forum, Ms. Warren loomed well above the other nine candidates flanking her on either side. She has gained considerable strength as a champion for the party’s progressive wing, stitching together a still-developing coalition heavy on young people, women and educated liberals. In some national and early-state polls, Ms. Warren has caught up with Mr. Sanders as the second-place challenger to Mr. Biden, or come close to doing so.

Yet Ms. Warren still faces skepticism from influential constituencies in the party, particularly about her ability to win the general election. The debates offered her a chance both to show Democratic voters that she is capable of defending her liberal policy proposals before a wide audience, and to project the kind of flinty resilience that might give Democrats confidence she can hold her own against a president who has reveled in attacking her personally.

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For many — perhaps most — of the other candidates on stage on Wednesday, the debate appeared to be less a test of momentum than a bid for relevance. No other candidate has broken the 5-percent mark in recent Democratic primary polls, and at least one, Mr. O’Rourke, has seen his support fade steadily since the beginning of the year.

Mr. Trump’s pledge to begin a mass roundup of families residing illegally in the United States had the potential to thrust immigration even more squarely into the center of the Democratic primary contest. Several of the candidates used their trip to South Florida to visit a local detention center for unaccompanied migrant children.

“What is happening here in Homestead is wrong,” Ms. Warren said outside the detention center on Wednesday, hours before the debate. “And we will fight it with everything we have.”

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