DETROIT (Reuters) - Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden came under heavy fire over healthcare, immigration and criminal justice reform on Wednesday, but fought back against a stage full of rivals eager to knock him off his perch during a contentious debate.
On the second of back-to-back nights of debates among Democrats vying to challenge Republican President Donald Trump in 2020, the former vice president came prepared to do battle after facing criticism for his sometimes wobbly performance in the first debate in Miami last month.
Striking a sharper and more aggressive tone, he tangled with rival Kamala Harris over healthcare, taking up a growing fight that has split the Democratic Party and dominated the first candidate encounter in Detroit on Tuesday.
He ridiculed Harris’ contention that the U.S. senator’s recently unveiled healthcare plan would not require a middle-class tax increase or the elimination of private insurance plans.
“You can’t beat President Trump with double-talk on this plan,” Biden told Harris. “The plan no matter how you cut it costs $3 trillion. It will require middle-class taxes to go up, not down. Thirdly, it will eliminate employer-based insurance.”
Harris rejected Biden’s description as “simply inaccurate” and ripped into his proposal to build on former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law, popularly known as Obamacare, and include a government-run option, saying it would leave millions uninsured.
“In 2019 in America for a Democrat to be running for president with a plan that does not cover everyone, I think is without excuse,” said Harris.
Biden called criticism of his plan “a bunch of malarkey.”
Democrats have made access to affordable healthcare one of their defining issues as the Trump administration has worked to chip away at Obamacare.
Biden also tangled with U.S. Senator Cory Booker, who renewed his criticism of Biden’s work as a senator on the 1994 crime bill, which critics say led to the disproportionate imprisonment of African-American men.
“There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that “tough on crime” phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected,” Booker told Biden.
Firing back, Biden attacked Booker’s tenure as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, where he led a police department that became embroiled in a federal civil rights investigation.
In an exchange with Julian Castro, the former housing secretary under Obama, Biden criticized Castro’s plan to decriminalize illegal border crossings.
“If you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It’s a crime,” said Biden, who was interrupted by protesters shouting about deportations under the Obama administration.
Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, retorted: “It looks like one of us has learned from the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t.”
After a debate on Tuesday that featured progressive leaders Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren defending their policies against criticism from more moderate rivals, the encounter on Wednesday focused more often on criticism of Trump and the best route to challenging him in 2020.
Booker, who along with Harris is a prominent black presidential contender, said Trump “is using the tired, old language of demagogues, of fear-mongers, of racists, to try to divide our country against itself.”
But there were still plenty of fireworks among the Democratic contenders.
Harris came under heavy attack from her rivals, an acknowledgment of her rise into the top tier of the Democratic field of about two dozen presidential candidates.
U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard questioned Harris’ criminal justice record when she served as attorney general in California.
“She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations then laughed about it when asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” Gabbard said.
Tensions have been building among party rivals in recent weeks. Biden has been jockeying with Harris and Booker for the support of black voters, a vital Democratic constituency.
Seeking to make a distinction with Trump, who has been widely criticized for attacks on minority U.S. lawmakers, Biden celebrated the diversity on the debate stage.
“Mr. President, this is America, and we are strong and great because of this diversity, Mr. President, not in spite of it,” he said.
“Let’s get something straight, we love it, we’re not leaving it, we’re here to stay and we’re certainly not leaving it here to you,” said Biden, who was No. 2 to Obama, the first black U.S. president.
Trump raised a firestorm this month when he tweeted that four progressive Democratic congresswomen should “go back” to where they came from, even though all are U.S. citizens and three are U.S.-born.
But Biden faced renewed criticism from Harris for working with segregationists while serving in the U.S. Senate decades ago.
“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 him to the place he holds,” she said.
Biden responded with a shot at Harris’ record as California’s top law enforcement officer.
“When Senator Harris was the attorney general for eight years in the state of California, there were two of the most segregated school districts in the country, in Los Angeles and in San Francisco,” he said. “I didn’t see a single solitary time she brought a case against them to desegregate.”
The debates come about six months before Iowa holds the first nominating contest, and the two nights in Detroit could be the last chance for many of the lower-tier contenders to make an appearance on the national debate stage.
The Democratic National Committee will double its fundraising and polling requirements to qualify for the next debates in September and October, leaving out more candidates and raising questions about their ability to continue their campaigns.
So far, only about a third of the field has met the qualifications. Several of the candidates used their closing statements to plead for more donations so they could make the debate.
Reporting by John Whitesides and Amanda Becker; Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney