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Democrats round on Biden but agree Trump is the real enemy

Washington governor Jay Inslee calls Donald Trump ‘a white nationalist’.

Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris participate in the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN (Paul Sancya/AP)
Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris participate in the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN (Paul Sancya/AP)

The ideological divisions gripping the Democratic Party intensified as presidential candidates battled over health care, immigration and race.

Former vice president Joe Biden was repeatedly forced to defend his decades-old political record against pointed attacks from his younger rivals, who charged that his eight-year relationship with President Barack Obama was not reason enough to earn the Democratic nomination.

The attacks on Mr Biden in the second presidential debate were most vivid coming from Kamala Harris, who declared his willingness to work with segregationists in the US Senate during the 1970s could have had dramatic consequences on the surge of minority candidates in political office.

She added that it could have prevented her and fellow presidential candidate Cory Booker, both of whom are black, from becoming senators.

You're dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don't even know the flavour Cory Booker

“Had those segregationists had their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate, Cory Booker would not be a member of the United States Senate, and Barack Obama would not have been in a position to nominate” Mr Biden to become vice president, she said.

When pressed, Mr Biden repeatedly leaned on his relationship with Obama.

“We’re talking about things that occurred a long, long time ago,” he said.

“Everybody’s talking about how terrible I am on these issues. Barack Obama knew who I was.”

The dynamic showcased the challenges ahead for Mr Biden and his party as Democrats seek to rebuild the young and multiracial coalition that helped Mr Obama win two presidential elections. Those differences were debated on a broad menu of issues including health care, immigration and women’s reproductive rights.

But it was the discussion of race that marked an escalating rift shaping the Democratic primary.

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Cory Booker participates in the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates (Paul Sancya/AP)

But at the same time, polls show Mr Biden has far more support from minority voters than his challengers, especially in the crucial early voting state of South Carolina.

Mr Booker, who at times adopted the position of peacemaker, also took Mr Biden to task over criminal justice issues and his role in passing a crime bill while a Delaware senator in the 1990s.

When Mr Biden fought back by criticising Mr Booker’s tenure as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, before becoming a New Jersey senator, Mr Booker shot back: “You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavour.”

In Detroit, a city where Democrats desperately need strong minority turnout to beat President Donald Trump next year, Mr Biden, 76, repeatedly clashed with the two black candidates in the race, as well as the only candidate of Mexican heritage, all of whom are more than two decades younger.

Mr Biden emphasised his work as vice president to help the car industry and the city repair its bankrupt finances.

For Democrats, the internal fight, while common to almost every primary cycle, is one many would rather avoid, favouring instead a focus on defeating Mr Trump.

Several candidates said they thought Mr Trump should be impeached and others called him a racist.

“The first thing I am going to do is Clorox the Oval Office,” Kirsten Gillibrand said.

Mr Biden’s struggling 2020 competitors see no better way to undermine his candidacy than raising questions about his commitment to black voters and women.

Anticipating a rough night, Mr Biden greeted Ms Harris onstage by quipping, “Go easy on me, kid.”

She did not, and he often responded in kind.

Biden charged that Ms Harris’s health care plan would cost taxpayers $3 trillion even after two terms in office and would force middle-class taxes to go up, not down.

He said that would put Democrats at a disadvantage against Mr Trump.

“You can’t beat President Trump with double talk on this plan,” he said.

Ms Harris slapped back that Mr Biden was inaccurate.

“The cost of doing nothing is far too expensive,” she said, adding: “Your plan does not cover everyone in America.”

For the first time in the months-old Democratic contest, Ms Harris faced pointed attacks on her plan to provide universal health care.

She faced criticism from all sides this week after releasing a competing plan that envisions a role for private insurance with strict government rules, but she wants to transition to a single-payer government-backed system within 10 years.

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Joe Biden and Kamala shake hands before the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates (Paul Sancya/AP)

There were also tense exchanges on immigration that pitted Mr Biden against former Obama housing secretary Julian Castro, the only Latino candidate in the race.

Mr Biden suggested that some of his rivals favour immigration laws that are far too forgiving.

Mr Castro, for example, would decriminalise illegal border crossings.

“People should have to get in line. That’s the problem,” Mr Biden said.

Mr Castro shot back: “It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one has not.”

While the first primary votes are six months away, there is a sense of urgency for the lower-tier candidates to break out.

More than half the field could be blocked from the next round of debate if they fail to reach new polling and fundraising thresholds implemented by the Democratic National Committee.

The dire stakes have forced many Democrats to turn against one another in recent weeks.

But their common focus was how they characterised Trump’s impact on American life.

Washington governor Jay Inslee was particularly blunt.

“We can no longer allow a white nationalist to be in the White House,” he said.

PA

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