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From left, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former vice-president Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Texas representative Beto O'Rourke and former housing secretary Julian Castro participate Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, in a primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University in Houston.

The Associated Press

Former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination ganged up Thursday night to accuse the front-runner of failing to be ambitious enough on everything from health care to gun control and foreign policy at the party’s third debate in Houston.

The evening also featured some brief references to Canada, including one candidate cracking a joke about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wavy hair.

The debate was the first with a sufficiently small field to take place on a single night, ensuring the top 10 contenders all appeared on the same stage together. The candidates traded barbs and jokes in the liveliest of the campaign’s three debates so far.

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What’s next in the Democratic nomination race? A guide to the debates, candidates and more

The almost three-hour performance drew sharper distinctions between the candidates in the centre and those on the left. But despite stumbling to respond to several attacks, Mr. Biden likely did little to damage his front-runner status.

“There’s a lot that I think Democrats and people who want a Democrat in the White House are willing to forgive,” said Seth McKee, a political scientist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Tex. “And even sort of a slow, foggy Joe Biden might be good enough.”

From the beginning, Mr. Biden, who has held a lead in the polls since before he entered the race in the spring, had a target on his back.

Left-wing senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, positioned on either side of Mr. Biden, opened by tag-teaming him on universal health care, which has proven to be the issue that most sharply divides the slate of more than two dozen candidates in the Democratic race.

While Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders want to replace all private health insurance with a single government-funded system, Mr. Biden favours keeping private health care but allowing people to buy into a government alternative.

“Everybody gets covered by health care at the lowest possible cost,” Ms. Warren said of her plan. “Those at the very top – the richest individuals and the biggest corporations – are going to pay more. And middle-class families are going to pay less.”

Mr. Sanders argued that the taxes to fund a single-payer system would be less than what Americans currently pay for private plans.

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Mr. Biden accused Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders of planning needless disruption by forcing people out of existing private plans and of not having a comprehensive way of funding their alternatives.

The tensest moment, however, came from Julian Castro, a former housing secretary who served with Mr. Biden in Barack Obama’s administration. He launched a thinly veiled attack on the former vice-president’s mental fitness, incorrectly accusing Mr. Biden of flip-flopping during the debate on whether people would be automatically enrolled in the public portion of his health-care plan.

“You just said two minutes ago they would have to buy in. Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” he said to a mix of gasps and boos in the audience. “I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you’re not.”

“That’ll be a surprise to him,” Mr. Biden retorted.

Former vice-president Joe Biden speaks as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Kamala Harris listen during the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston, Sept. 12, 2019.

Mike Blake/Reuters

Senator Kamala Harris took a similar tack, albeit more subtle, when she needled Mr. Biden on gun control. She has vowed to ban assault rifles using an executive order, which Mr. Biden argues would be unconstitutional.

“Hey, Joe, yes we can,” Ms. Harris said, reprising Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan. A former California attorney-general, Ms. Harris has been struggling to regain her footing in the race. She couched many of her political attacks in humour, telling Mr. Trump to “go back to watching Fox News” and questioning the President’s skills in negotiating with China by comparing him to the Wizard of Oz. “You know when you pull back the curtain and it’s a really small dude?"

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The debate was held a day after the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and many candidates pledged to pull the U.S. out of Afghanistan if elected. “Today you could be 18 years old – old enough to serve – and would have not been alive on 9/11,” said South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who served as a Navy intelligence officer in Afghanistan. “We have got to put an end to endless war.”

Mr. Biden said he had opposed Mr. Obama’s decision to increase the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and issued an unprompted apology for voting as a senator to authorize the George W. Bush administration’s war in Iraq. “I should never have voted to give Bush the authority to go in and do what he said he was going to do,” Mr. Biden said, adding that he would also bring U.S. troops back from Afghanistan.

“The big mistake, the huge mistake, and one of the differences between you and me is that I never believed what Cheney and Bush said,” retorted Mr. Sanders, a long-time anti-war activist.

Several candidates pledged to restore relations with America’s allies, including Canada, and criticized Mr. Trump’s relationships with strongmen leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Senator Cory Booker mocked the President for imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada for almost a year using an obscure national-security provision in U.S. trade law. “I’m the only person on this stage who finds Trudeau’s hair very menacing, but they are not a national-security threat,” the bald Mr. Booker joked on a night that also featured the first leaders’ debate of the Canadian federal election.

Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke called for closer co-operation on immigration between the U.S., Canada and Mexico to tackle visa overstays – people who legally enter the U.S. but then fail to leave when they are supposed to. “I talked about harmonizing our entry-exit system with Mexico in the same way that we do with Canada,” he said, referring to an interview on the subject with the Washington Post.

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Several candidates praised Mr. O’Rourke, who suspended his campaign in the wake of a deadly mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso last month and has rebooted himself as a fierce critic of Mr. Trump on gun control and race relations. “We have a white supremacist in the White House, and he poses a mortal threat to people of colour all across this country,” he said, adding that he supports a ban on assault weapons. “Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, for her part, pushed her case as the best moderate candidate to challenge Mr. Biden, while Mr. Castro used his attacks on the former vice-president to stake out his place in the party’s left wing.

The debate isn’t likely to be a game-changer for the race, said Mark Jones, a political scientist from Rice University in Houston. “I'd say the most noteworthy aspect of it is that there was no change.”

Mr. Biden appeared stronger than in previous rounds, and attacks from his competitors were more muted, said Mitchell McKinney, director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri. “It is interesting that Elizabeth Warren, the principal contender to Biden, did not take on the front-runner directly,” he said.

However, Mr. Biden, currently at about 30 per cent in public opinion polls, has so far squandered a chance to break away from the rest of the pack, said David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.

“Biden could have wrapped this up by now if he chose to lead with his famous empathy and charm instead of getting defensive, but he hasn’t done that and tonight was no different,” he said.

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