Associated Press


Associated Press

MIAMI

Democratic divisions over race, age and ideology surged into public view in Thursday night’s presidential debate, a prime-time clash punctuated by a heated exchange between former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris.

It was one of several moments that left the 76-year-old Biden, who entered the night as his party’s fragile front-runner, on the defensive as he worked to convince voters across America that he’s still in touch with the Democratic Party of 2020 – and best-positioned to deny President Donald Trump a second term.

“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris said to Biden, though she described his record of working with Democratic segregationist senators on nonrace issues as “hurtful.”

Biden called Harris’ criticism “a complete mischaracterization of my record.” He declared, “I ran because of civil rights,” and later accused the Trump administration of embracing racism.

The debate marked an abrupt turning point in a Democratic primary in which candidates have largely tiptoed around each other, focusing instead on their shared desire to beat Trump. But the debate revealed just how deep the fissures are within the Democratic Party eight months before primary voting begins.

Thursday’s debate, like the one a night earlier, gave millions of Americans their first peek inside the Democrats’ unruly 2020 season.

The showdown featured four of the five strongest candidates – according to early polls, at least. Those are Biden, Sanders, Pete Buttigieg of Indiana and Harris. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who debated Wednesday night, is the fifth.

There are so many candidates lining up to take on Trump that they do not all fit on one debate stage – or even two. Twenty Democrats debated on national television this week in two waves of 10, while a handful more were left out altogether.

The level of diversity on display was unprecedented for a major political party in the United States. The field features six women, two African-Americans, one Asian-American and two men under 40, one of them openly gay.

Yet in the early days of the campaign, two white septuagenarians are leading the polls: Biden and Sanders.

Thursday’s slate of candidates – and the debate itself – highlighted the unprecedented diversity of the Democratic Party’s 2020 class.

Buttigieg, a 37-year-old gay former military officer, is four decades younger than Sanders and has been framing his candidacy as a call for generational change in his party. Harris is the only African-American woman to qualify for the presidential debate stage. Any of the three women featured Thursday night would be the first elected president.

Buttigieg faced tough questions about a racially charged recent police shooting in his city in which a white officer shot and killed a black man, Eric Logan.

Buttigieg said an investigation was underway, and he acknowledged the underlying racial tensions in his city and others. “It’s a mess,” he said plainly. “And we’re hurting.”

One of the lesser-known candidates on stage, California Rep Eric Swalwell, called on Buttigieg to fire his police chief, even though the investigation was only beginning.

Swalwell also took a swipe at Biden’s advanced age. Either Biden or Sanders would be the oldest president elected.

“Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago,” Swalwell jabbed.

Biden responded: “I’m still holding on to that torch.”

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