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Left to right: Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders during the fifth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidates focused their attacks on President Donald Trump during a debate Wednesday night that was largely overshadowed by U.S. Congressional impeachment hearings into the President’s conduct toward Ukraine.

During the two-hour debate in Atlanta, several candidates referred to Mr. Trump as a “criminal” and offered support for the impeachment inquiry. But beyond attacking Mr. Trump, the fifth Democratic debate offered relatively few fireworks – and signalled just how crowded the race to challenge Mr. Trump’s presidency remains with less than three months to go before the first caucuses in Iowa in February.

Here are five highlights from the fifth Democratic debate:

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Democrats are united in supporting an impeachment inquiry, but disagree on how far to go

Democratic candidates have largely thrown their support behind the impeachment inquiry now under way in the House of Representatives. But they disagree on whether they support actually removing Mr. Trump from office, which would come through a trial in the Senate.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren – who has said she believes there is enough evidence to remove Mr. Trump from office – suggested Democrats had enabled the President to pursue political investigations by Ukraine when they initially refused to launch impeachment proceedings after the release of a report by former special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian election interference in the spring. “When Congress failed to act, it meant the President felt free to break the law again and again,” she said.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar argued that while she believed Mr. Trump had committed “impeachable conduct,” Congress should wait to hear all the evidence before deciding whether he should be impeached. ”I just believe our job as jurors is to look at each count and make a decision,” she said.

Moderators from MSNBC and The Washington Post also pressed candidates on whether they would launch a criminal investigation into Mr. Trump’s conduct as president once he had left office, something former vice-president Joe Biden said he would leave up to federal prosecutors to decide.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders suggested most U.S. voters have already made up their mind on whether Mr. Trump had committed a crime: “The more they see these impeachment hearings on television, [the more] they do believe they have a president who thinks he is above the law.”

Democrats sparred over who has the best chance of beating Donald Trump

Polls consistently show that Democratic voters are focused on finding a candidate who has the best shot at beating Mr. Trump, making policy differences between candidates less important than their electability.

Candidates spent much of their time arguing they offered the Democrats the best shot at beating Mr. Trump – and debating whether the Democratic Party needs to nominate a white man who can win over swing voters who backed Mr. Trump in 2016, or energize their base with a woman or a candidate of colour.

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“Black voters are pissed off, and they’re worried,” said New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who is African-American. “We don’t want to see people miss this opportunity and lose because we are nominating someone that isn’t trusted, that doesn’t have a more authentic connection.”

Ms. Klobuchar, who has complained that female politicians aren’t taken as seriously as their male counterparts, challenged the notion that U.S. voters weren’t yet ready to elect a woman. “If you think a woman can’t beat Trump, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi does it every day.”

California Senator Kamala Harris argued that as the only woman of colour on the stage she was in the best position to recreate the broad-based voter coalition that elected Barack Obama to office. “For too long candidates have taken for granted the constituencies that have been the backbone of the Democratic Party,” she said.

Mr. Biden, who leads in national polls, leaned on his lengthy political career to argue that what Democratic voters want most is someone with experience. “You have to ask yourself up here who is most likely to be able to win the nomination in the first place,” he said, adding that he was chosen as Mr. Obama’s vice-president in part because of his long-standing support among African-American voters. “I’m part of that Obama coalition,” he said. “I come out of the black community, in terms of my support."

Joe Biden struggles to stay on message

Despite his appeal for voters to trust his experience, Mr. Biden stumbled through several gaffes during the debate. He came under fire especially from Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker for suggesting he is the candidate best suited to win over African-American voters.

In one exchange, Mr. Booker took aim at Mr. Biden for saying earlier this month that he was against legalizing marijuana. “I thought you might have been high when you said it,” Mr. Booker said, arguing that minority communities are disproportionately the target of tough drug-crime laws.

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Mr. Biden countered that he supports decriminalizing cannabis and that he was the only candidate who had received an endorsement from former Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun, whom he referred to as “the only black woman elected to the Senate.”

Mr. Booker and Ms. Harris immediately interrupted to point out that Ms. Harris is also a U.S. senator. “The other one is here,” she said, tossing up her hands. “I meant the first” black female senator, Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Biden, who turned 77 on Wednesday, also responded to a question about how he would address sexual violence by pointing to his work to help pass the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which aimed to tackle domestic violence.

“No man has a right to raise a hand to a woman in anger other than in self-defence,” he said before adding: “We have to just change the culture, period – and keep punching at it, and punching it, and punching at it.”

Pete Buttigieg comes under attack

While he trails behind Mr. Biden in national polls, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has seen surprising traction in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Mr. Buttigieg, 37, is a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar who is gay, speaks several languages, and served in the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan. He is the darling of wealthy urban donors. But he has drawn criticism for his lack of political experience, and is struggling to build support among non-white voters.

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“I happen to be the other Rhodes scholar mayor on this stage,” said Mr. Booker, a former mayor of Newark, N.J., suggesting Mr. Buttigieg has received too much attention for his accomplishments. Ms. Harris attacked Mr. Buttigieg for using a stock image of a Kenyan woman as part of a campaign to tackle racism in the United States.

Ms. Klobuchar contrasted Mr. Buttigieg’s experience as a small-town mayor who previously lost the race for Indiana state treasurer, with her own 12 years in the U.S. Senate. “I have actually done this work,” she said. “I think experience should matter.”

“There’s more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage,” Mr. Buttigieg countered. “And where are we right now as a country?”

But the sharpest attack that Mr. Buttigieg faced was from Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. She is the only other candidate to share Mr. Buttigieg’s military experience, having served in Iraq with the U.S. Army National Guard.

She pointed to a “careless statement” that Mr. Buttigieg would send U.S. troops to Mexico to fight drug cartels as an “example of your inexperience in national security.” (Mr. Buttigieg told a forum in Los Angeles on the weekend that he would be open to sharing troops with Mexico as part of a “security co-operation” arrangement.)

“Do you seriously think that anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico,” Mr. Buttigieg shot back, before criticizing Ms. Gabbard for meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2017. “I have … enough judgment that I would not have sat down with a murderous dictator like that.”

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What would a post-Trump America look like under a Democratic president?

While candidates assailed Mr. Trump’s presidency, they offered few specifics when debate moderators pressed them on exactly how far they would go dismantling many of Mr. Trump’s most controversial policies at home and abroad.

Ms. Warren said she would tear down some portions of the wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. “If there are parts of the wall that are not useful in our defence, of course we should do it,” she said. (Of roughly 1,200 kilometres of border fencing, less than 130 km has been constructed or upgraded during Mr. Trump’s time in office.)

Mr. Trump had been “punked” by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as part of denuclearization talks, Ms. Harris said. “He had traded a photo-op for nothing,” she said, while promising to rejoin international accords such as the Iran nuclear deal.

Mr. Biden said he would end the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, a departure from U.S. policy under both the Trump and Obama administrations. “We [are] going to make them pay the price, and make them the pariah that they are,” he said.

Others like Mr. Sanders warned that Democrats remain too focused on attacking Mr. Trump at a time when voters are more interested in a nominee who can offer solutions to everyday problems, like high health-care costs. “We cannot be consumed by Donald Trump,” he said.

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