Former vice-president Joe Biden offered a forceful rebuke of President Donald Trump’s attacks on his family, calling him “the most corrupt president in modern American history” during the first Democratic debate since the launch of an impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump’s demand that foreign governments investigate his political rival.
But Tuesday’s debate in Ohio – featuring a dozen presidential candidates in a state Democrats are keen to win back from Mr. Trump – also highlighted just how much the momentum in the race has shifted away from Mr. Biden, toward more liberal rival Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Mr. Biden, 76, has been under attack for weeks by Mr. Trump over unproven claims that as vice-president he pressed Ukrainian officials to drop an investigation into a natural gas company while his son Hunter Biden was on the company’s board.
Revelations that Mr. Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July phone call to investigate Mr. Biden prompted the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives to open an impeachment inquiry into the U.S. President last month.
Mr. Biden has stepped up his offensive against Mr. Trump in recent days, calling the President a liar at a campaign event in Iowa this week as he unveiled a raft of proposals, including publicly-funded elections, he said were aimed at curbing corruption by future presidents.
In an interview with ABC News hours before the debate, Hunter Biden denied any ethical wrongdoings, but acknowledged he had showed “poor judgment” in some of his business dealings. He promised not to work for any foreign-owned companies if his father becomes president.
Mr. Biden defended his son in Tuesday’s debate, saying the two had never discussed Ukraine during the time he was vice-president. “My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong,” he said. “My son made a judgment. I’m proud of the judgment he made. I’m proud of what he had to say.” The President’s attacks are proof Mr. Trump feels threatened by a Biden candidacy, he added.
Yet despite Mr. Biden’s claim to be the best candidate to beat Mr. Trump, his Democratic rivals largely avoided attacking him and instead saved their sharpest barbs for Ms. Warren.
The Massachusetts senator has seen her support among Democratic voters steadily rise in recent weeks. She now leads in several opinion polls, including in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Tuesday’s crowded stage was filled with candidates whose poll numbers remain in the single digits and who were looking for a breakout moment that would keep their campaign going until next month’s debate. And they spent much of their time attacking Ms. Warren’s progressive proposals, such as breaking up Big Tech, reining in corporate America and taxing the wealthy to pay for expanded social programs like universal health care.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg – both competing as centrist alternatives to Mr. Biden – accused Ms. Warren of not explaining how she proposes to pay for a universal health care program without raising taxes on the middle class. “Your signature is to have a plan for everything, except this,” Mr. Buttigieg said.
Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke called Ms. Warren “punitive” for proposing a wealth tax for the very rich. California Senator Kamala Harris accused Ms. Warren of playing favourites with tech companies by calling for the breakup of Facebook while refusing to demand that Twitter suspend Mr. Trump’s account.
The former Harvard University professor largely refused to engage. Ms. Warren instead accused her rivals of courting wealthy corporate financial donors and promoting moderate platforms aimed at supporting the status quo. “They think that running some kind of vague campaign that nibbles around the edges of big problems in this country is a winning strategy,” she said. “They are wrong.”
As the two front runners, however, Ms. Warren and Mr. Biden largely avoided attacking each other.
During one of their only tense exchanges, Ms. Warren described her work to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency to go after predatory lenders in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
“I went on the floor and got you votes,” Mr. Biden said of the agency, presenting himself as a deal maker who can wrangle the necessary votes to get bills passed through Congress. “I convinced people to vote for it. So let’s get those things straight, too.”
Ms. Warren responded with a subtle jab suggesting it was former president Barack Obama, not Mr. Biden, who “fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law.”
“You did a hell of a job in your job,” Mr. Biden replied, prompting Ms. Warren to utter a surprised: “Thank you.”
The candidates were also pressed on one of the greatest hurdles likely to face the leading Democrats in the race: age. Front runners Ms. Warren, Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders are all in their 70s, sparking concerns that voters may be reluctant to support a candidate who would be the oldest president ever to take office.
“I’m healthy, I’m feeling great,” said Mr. Sanders, 78, who was back on the campaign trail Tuesday after suffering a heart attack two weeks ago.
Mr. Biden argued his age and experience were benefits and promised to release his medical records before the Iowa caucuses in February. “I do not need any on-the-job training the day I take office."
Ms. Warren, 70, pledged to “outwork, out-organize and outlast anyone.”
The candidates also widely attacked Mr. Trump for withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria, which has allowed Turkey to press ahead with an offensive against Kurdish fighters, a decision that has also drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers.
Mr. Biden said he would have kept U.S. troops in the county and would do more to exert pressure on the Turkish government to stop its invasion. Ms. Warren criticized Mr. Trump’s handling of the issue, but said she wanted to “get out of the Middle East.”
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