DETROIT — Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden came into the debate Wednesday itching for a fight and almost immediately scolded Sen. Kamala D. Harris for peddling what he described as a weak health care plan.
Mr. Biden’s aggressive early moves against Ms. Harris and his other rivals was intended to demonstrate that he was still at the top of his game after stumbling in the first debate a month ago in Miami.
“To be very blunt and very straightforward, you can’t beat President Trump with double talk on this plan,” Mr. Biden told Ms. Harris in a sharp exchange.
His aggressive style also delivered a pre-emptive strike against the nine other candidates who were gunning for him on the debate stage. The tougher criteria to get into the September debate in Houston forced the candidates to play for keeps in the Motor City, knowing they either get a bounce for their campaigns or face elimination from the race. As many as half the campaigns are expected to fold by September.
Mr. Biden accused Ms. Harris of waffling on the plan and accused her of hiding the true cost of the proposal, which he pegged at $3 trillion.
The former vice president said he would stick with and build upon the Affordable Care Act, which was enacted while he was in the White House with President Obama.
“Under your plan, status quo,” Ms. Harris fired back. “You do nothing to hold the insurance companies to task for what they have been doing to American families.”
Mr. Biden then railed against the “Medicare for All” government-run health care proposed by Ms. Harris and far-left candidates such as Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, saying it would require big tax hikes on middle-class Americans.
“This idea is a bunch of malarkey what we’re talking about here,” Mr. Biden fumed.
Foreshadowing his feistiness, he said in opening remarks: “Tonight, I think Democrats expected some engagement here. I expect we’ll get it.”
If he came looking for a fight, Mr. Biden got one.
Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey accused the former vice president of pitting some immigrants against others and of hypocrisy for repeatedly invoking Mr. Obama but ducking responsibility for the record number of deportations in his administration.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Mr. Booker told Mr. Biden. “You can’t do it when it is convenient and dodge it when it’s not.”
In another feisty exchange over police racism when Mr. Booker was mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Mr. Booker stung Mr. Biden with a streetwise putdown.
“There is a saying in my neighborhood that you are dipping into the Kool Aid and don’t even know the flavor,” he said, eliciting laughs and cheers from the crowd.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced himself to viewers by attacking Mr. Biden (and Ms. Harris too) as status-quo sellouts.
“Joe Biden told wealthy donors that nothing would fundamentally change if he was president. Kamala Harris said she is not trying to restructure society. Well, I am,” he said, vowing to “tax the hell out of the wealthy.”
The fireworks were not limited to clashes with Mr. Biden.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii hammered Sen. Kamala Harris for her background as a prosecutor, accusing the California Democrat of failing to stand up against injustice in the criminal-justice system when it mattered most.
“She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” Ms. Gabbard said, also accusing her of pushing executions, seeking to extend sentences and fighting against claims of innocence — all contrary to her current stated positions.
In a clash over health care with Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mr. de Blasio snapped: “I don’t understand why Democrats on this stage are fearmongering about universal health care. It makes no sense.”
Mr. Biden all of his rivals for wanting to decriminalize illegally crossing the border — a position former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro dismissed as “a right-wing talking point” — saying it would invite a new surge of migrants from across the world.
“If you cross the border illegally you should be able to be sent back. It’s a crime,” he said.
He also distanced himself from the Obama years, when the administration set records for deportation, saying he would not go back to years of 400,000 removals a year. “Absolutely not,” he said.
Foreshadowing the festiness of the debate, Mr. Biden said in opening remarks: “Tonight I think Democrats expected some engagement here. I expect we’ll get it.”
But as the candidates walked onto the stage, he greeted Ms. Harris with the moniker “kid.”
Both politicians’ microphones were apparently already on as they gathered in the stage center, and it caught Mr. Biden’s greeting — though it wasn’t entirely clear what he said.
Some observers thought he said “Go easy on me, kid.” Others thought he asked “How you doing kid?” but the word “kid” was distinct.
Several times, protesters interrupted the debate, and not always at the obvious targets. A chant related to deportations interrupted an answer from Mr. Castro, who was making the case for decriminalizing illegal border crossings.
Early on, some audience members began chanting “Fire Pantaleo.” They were referring to a New York City police officer involved in the 2014 death of an unarmed black man during a scuffle.
But they shouted during the introductory remarks of Mr. Booker instead of Mr. de Blasio, who said earlier in the day through a spokesman that due process requirements prevented him from firing Officer Daniel Pantaleo.
The senator from New Jersey stopped his comments briefly, but his Twitter account said shortly afterward that “To the folks who were standing up to Mayor de Blasio a few minutes ago — good for you. That’s how change is made. #DemDebate.”
Another audience was the Trump campaign, which reacted with a mixture of disgust and glee Wednesday night when Mr. Biden pledged to get rid of the coal and natural-gas fracking industries.
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted, “Bye bye coal, Democrats & @JoeBiden just said they are done with you. How do you feel about that Pennsylvania?”
During the debate , Mr. Biden was asked if he would eliminate coal and fracking if elected president.
“We would make sure it’s eliminated and no more subsidies for either one of those,” Mr. Biden declared with a wave of his hand.
— Arthur Schwartz (@ArthurSchwartz) August 1, 2019
— RNC Research (@RNCResearch) August 1, 2019
Though the clear front-runner in the race, Mr. Biden, 76, bounded onto the stage at the Fox Theater having to prove he is still at the top of his game.
He appeared unsteady and befuddled at the first debate of 2020 Democratic hopefuls last month in Miami when Ms. Harris dinged him for opposing busing to desegregate public schools in the 1970s. He chalked up his reaction to being too gentlemanly and vowed to be less “polite” in Detroit.
Since then, Mr. Booker has hammered Mr. Biden for his lead role as a senator from Delaware in passing the get-tough 1994 crime bill that has been blamed for contributing to the mass incarcerations of black Americans. He raised the issue again during Wednesday’s debate.
He pushed back against Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker, both of whom are black, by pointing to his years of supporting civil rights as a senator and the eight years he spent as vice president to the country’s first black president.
Mr. Biden remains the overwhelming pick of black voters, a crucial bloc in the Democratic primaries.
The higher bar that the Democratic National Committee set for entry to the September debate in Houston put intense pressure on the low-polling candidates to have a breakout moment in Detroit.
The do-or-die stakes also contributed to a spirited debate Tuesday when top contenders Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts came under fire for their socialist-style agenda.
More moderate candidates assailed the most cherished proposals of the far left such as “Medicare for All” government-run health care, decriminalizing illegal immigration and a “Green New Deal” environmentalist overhaul of the U.S. economy.
The deep rift between Democratic Party liberals and the far left was on full display. Liberals warned that an extreme agenda would doom the party to defeat and usher in four more years of President Trump. The arguments of more moderate Democrats, including charges of the far left employing “fairy-tale economics,” in some ways lays the groundwork for Mr. Biden to make the case for himself as a return to normalcy.
But Mr. Biden first had to thwart challenges from Ms. Warren, Mr. Booker and the other candidates gunning for him on the debate stage Wednesday.
Recovering from a slight dip in the polls after his clash with Ms. Harris in the Miami debate, Mr. Biden has a wide lead.
A Quinnipiac University national poll this week put Mr. Biden far out in front at 34% support, followed by Ms. Warren at 15%, Ms. Harris at 12%, Mr. Sanders at 11% and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 6%.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and entrepreneur Andrew Yang each got 2% to tie for sixth place in the poll.
An Emerson Polling survey this week showed Mr. Biden with a slimmer lead, getting 33% support while Mr. Sanders placed second at 20%, followed by Ms. Warren at 14% and Ms. Harris at 11%.
The road to the White House in 2020 could go through the Upper Midwest.
Voters in Michigan and in nearby Wisconsin and Pennsylvania played an instrumental role in Mr. Trump’s unexpected 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton.Michigan was widely considered a shoo-in for Democrats after Mr. Obama bested Republican challenger Mitt Romney by over 9 percentage points in 2012.
Mr. Trump, though, eked out a 10,000-vote victory over Mrs. Clinton in a race where 4.5 million ballots were cast — making him the first Republican since Ronald Reagan to capture the state’s electoral votes in a presidential contest.
The 2020 Democratic presidential nominee will be seeking to re-create some of the Obama magic — particularly in Detroit, a majority black city that came out in force for Mr. Obama but was far less energized by Mrs. Clinton.
The second debate was the latest opportunity for the field of Democratic presidential contenders to convince those voters that they will not take them for granted and argue that they offer the party the best chance of rebuilding the blue wall that Mr. Trump smashed in 2016.
⦁ Dave Boyer and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.
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