Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden went on the offensive on Wednesday against his main 2020 opponents, but was rapidly assailed on the debate stage over key issues such as health care, race and immigration.
Tensions rose between the former Vice-President and Senator Kamala Harris, the most prominent African American in the field, as the two reprised their clash from a month earlier at the debut debate. But while Mr. Biden aimed aggressive attacks at Ms. Harris and her health care plan, other rivals in the second night of the two-night, 20-candidate debate sought to undercut him on a host of issues.
Mr. Biden is leading polls for the nod to take on President Donald Trump in 2020, and nearly all of the other nine Democrats on stage attacked him at some point.
He found himself in a series of sharp exchanges on the central campaign issue of health care along with his stance on climate change and his past legislative record, in particular his failure to take decisive action against illegal immigration.
When Mr. Biden jousted with Ms. Harris about her “double talk” on her own modified Medicare for All plan, which he noted would take 10 years to kick in, Ms. Harris shot back: “You’re simply inaccurate in what you’re describing.”
She said Mr. Biden’s proposal for government-backed health insurance for those who want it “leaves out almost 10 million Americans” from coverage.
Mr. Biden’s advisers had urged him to be more aggressive after his lackluster first debate performance, but the 76-year-old struck a curious opening note on Wednesday.
As the debate began, Mr. Biden greeted Harris, a 54-year-old former California attorney general, by shaking her hand and saying, “Go easy on me, kid.”
She did not. Ms. Harris renewed the criticism that gave her a viral moment in the first debate by accusing Mr. Biden of making light of his work with segregationists in the Senate in the 1970s.
“The Vice-President has still failed to acknowledge that it was wrong to take the position that he took at that time,” Ms. Harris said.
The squabbling came after deep fault lines between the party’s centrist and progressive wings were exposed on the first debate night, which featured leading liberals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
In one of the few moments of broad unity onstage, several candidates joined Mr. Biden in condemning Mr. Trump.
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard said the President “is not behaving like a patriot,” while Julian Castro, the only Latino in the field, branded Mr. Trump an outright “racist.” But much of the night was consumed with clashes between candidates. “Middle ground approaches are not enough,” said Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who has released a plan to tackle climate change. “We must confront the fossil fuel industry.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was fully prepared to “restructure” the U.S. economy and society.
“We will tax the hell out of the wealthy,” he boomed.
Low-polling candidates like Mr. de Blasio, Mr. Inslee, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and entrepreneur Andrew Yang were desperate for standout moments to justify staying in the race.