AFPMIAMI (AFP-Jiji) — Frontrunner Joe Biden came under withering criticism Thursday from his Democratic rivals for the 2020 presidential nomination, including calls to leave the fight against Donald Trump to a younger generation.
In a sometimes feisty battle of the Democratic heavyweights, the gloves swiftly came off as all candidates attacked Trump in the party’s second straight night of debates aimed at introducing candidates to a national audience in the early stage of the battle for 2020.
Former vice president Biden blasted Trump for his “horrible” policies that have exacerbated income inequality, while his chief rival for the nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders, took it directly to the “phony” president, calling him “a pathological liar and a racist.”
But the 76-year-old Biden, back on the debate stage for the first time in seven years, faced an unexpectedly sharp and early attack from a lower-tier candidate half his age, 38-year-old congressman Eric Swalwell, who called on the former vice president to “pass the torch” to a new generation of party leaders.
“I’m still holding on to that torch,” Biden snapped back.
Others who confronted the frontrunner included Sen. Kamala Harris, the only black woman in the race, who made stirring call for Biden to recognize his recent “hurtful” comments about being civil with avowedly segregationist U.S. senators and his record on the .
Biden, with the room dead quiet, insisted he does not “praise racists,” and denied that he opposed intiatives in the 1970s to bus children from predominantly black communities to better schools in more prosperous neighborhoods.
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed to school every day,” Harris said, in one of the most potent moments of the evening.
“That little girl was me.”
Biden jousted with nine rivals — each chasing his cherished pole position in the race — on the climactic second night of a sprawling debate featuring Democrats eager to introduce themselves to a national audience.
With so many potential challengers to Trump, the party needed to split the top 20 candidates into debates on two nights in southern Florida, which is expected to be a key swing state in next year’s election.
Thursday’s session featured four of the race’s top five candidate in national polling, including Biden’s main challenger Sanders, the 77-year-old US senator whose high-spending policies like universal healthcare have pushed the party leftward in recent years.
The top tier also includes Harris, the only African American woman in the race, and Pete Buttigieg, the gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana who shot to prominence earlier this year but has seen that momentum plateau.
All candidates savaged Trump for his immigration policy, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand who said the president had “torn apart our moral fabric” by separating children.
Author Marianne Williamson, a surprise presidential candidate who had largely remained sidelined on the stage, offered a more scathing rebuke, likening the policies to “kidnapping” and “child abuse.”
“These are state-sponsored crimes,” she said.
Biden and other candidates quickly turned against Trump on taxes, health care and income inequality, while early debate also addressed whether the party grounded in capitalism should embrace a shift towards more liberal politics and government involvement in the economy on issues like health care and climate change.
Buttigieg pushed back on extravagant spending promises on health and education, including proposals for tuition-free public college.
“The children of the wealthiest Americans can pay a little tuition,” Buttigieg said. “While I want costs to go down, I don’t think we can buy down every last penny for them.”
Third place Elizabeth Warren, the rising star progressive U.S. senator, was on Wednesday stage, where she called out disparities in wealth and income and pledged to work to improve the lives of struggling working class families.
Sanders, a democratic socialist, covered the same ground Thursday, but he also acknowledged that, in a shift to his Medicare for All platform, Americans would have to pay more taxes.
Biden is the clear leader with 32 percent support in polling, compared to Sanders at 17 percent, Harris with seven, and Buttigieg at 6.6.
But while several Democrats have been barnstorming early voting states like Iowa, Biden has eased into campaigning since he launched his candidacy on April 25, largely avoiding confrontation with rivals.