HOUSTON — Joe Biden vigorously defended his health care plan against Democratic rivals in Thursday night's presidential debate, a high-stakes clash in which health insurance played proxy for the broader fight for the direction of the party.
Biden lashed out at his more progressive rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, as a socialist who hadn't explained how he and his progressive allies would pay for his government-backed "Medicare for All" plan.
As Sanders noted that citizens of the U.S. spend much more on health care than Canadians or people in other countries, Biden interrupted, "This is America." He added, "I'm for Barack," emphasizing his idea that former President Obama's "Obamacare" should be updated, not replaced.
A fiery Sanders punched back, charging that Biden has to defend millions of Americans going bankrupt under the health care system Obama implemented.
The debate took place as the Democratic Party's leading candidates shared the debate stage for the first time in a prime-time showdown displaying sharply opposing notions of electability in the party's presidential nomination fight.
Biden's remarkably steady lead in the crowded contest has been built on the idea that the former vice president is best suited to defeat President Donald Trump next year — a contention based on ideology, experience and perhaps gender. Sanders and Warren, meanwhile, have repeatedly criticized Biden's measured approach, at least indirectly, by arguing that only bold action on key issues like health care, the economy and climate change can build the coalition needed to win in 2020.
The faceoff between Biden, Warren and Sanders at center stage dominated the pre-event talk, yet each of the other seven candidates hopes for a breakout moment with the attention of the nation beginning to increase less than five months before the first primary votes are cast.
Beyond Biden and Sens. Warren and Sanders, the candidates on stage Thursday night include Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Sen. Kamala Harris, New York businessman Andrew Yang, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and former Obama Housing chief Julian Castro.
The ABC News debate was the first limited to one night after several candidates dropped out and others failed to meet new qualification standards. A handful more candidates qualified for next month's debate, which will again be divided over two nights.
Viewers saw the diversity of the modern Democratic Party.
The debate, held on the campus of historically black Texas Southern University, included women, people of color and a gay man, a striking contrast to the Republicans. It unfolded in a rapidly changing state that Democrats hope to eventually bring into their column.