ATLANTA (AP) — The Democratic presidential debate opened Wednesday night with the candidates agreeing that President Donald Trump should be impeached.
“The president broke the law again and again and again,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in the event’s opening minutes. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Trump “puts his own private interests” ahead of the country’s and “this is wrong.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called Trump “the most corrupt president in modern history” but added, “We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump” or the Democratic Party will lose the election. He said Democrats instead should focus on the needs of working people.
Such broad agreement was unlikely to last, though. Pete Buttigieg’s rise in the primary makes him a prime target as the four candidates now bunched at the top seek to distinguish themselves with less than three months until voting begins.
The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has gained significant ground in recent months in Iowa, which holds the nation’s first caucuses on Feb. 3. But with top-tier status comes added scrutiny, as the other front-runners discovered in four previous debates throughout the summer and fall.
Former Vice President Joe Biden had to swat back criticism of his past work with segregationist Senate colleagues and his support of some unpopular Obama administration policies. Warren has faced weeks of tough questions about her support for a “Medicare for All” universal health insurance plan, and Sanders has been forced to prove he has the stamina for the race, especially after the 78-year-old’s heart attack in October.
Buttigieg could face pressure to demonstrate that he can woo black and other minority voters and that his experience running a city of only about 100,000 residents is enough to qualify him for the White House.
Previous attacks against Biden, who turned 77 on Wednesday, Warren and Sanders failed to reshape the race — but the trio likely will face their own share of criticism on the debate stage in Atlanta.
Medicare for All has dominated the primary and could also be a key topic Wednesday after Warren, 70, released plans to raise $20-plus trillion in new government revenue on universal health care. But she also said implementation of the program may take three years — drawing criticism both from moderates like Biden and Buttigieg, who think she’s trying to distance herself from an unpopular idea, and Sanders supporters, who see the Massachusetts senator’s commitment to Medicare for All wavering.
The debate comes amid uncertainty about the Democratic field, with some party donors worried no one is positioned to deny Trump a second term. Former President Barack Obama even warned last week that the party against moving too far to the left.
Speaking to that anxiety, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick entered race last week. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the ex-New York City mayor, is openly flirting with a bid — though neither will be onstage Wednesday.
The Georgia backdrop for the debate, featuring the cycle’s first all-female moderator team, may be fitting for such doubts since Democrat Stacey Abrams was narrowly defeated in the gubernatorial race last year — raising her party’s hopes of winning a state in 2020 the GOP has consistently carried in recent presidential cycles.
There are seven more Democrats without promising polling who will just be hoping for the chance to shine before a prime-time debate audience, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Klobuchar.
Weissert reported from Washington.