MIAMI — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren raised her hand as one of the only Democratic presidential contenders willing to abolish her own private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan, demanding "structural change" in the economy and the government as Democrats met on the debate stage for the first time in the 2020 presidential season.
Warren's position highlighted a rift within her party's most ambitious contenders over how to approach inequality in America in a prime-time meeting that marked the unofficial starting line for the Democratic Party's quest to wrest the White House from Donald Trump and deny him a second term.
The debate marked a new phase in the 2020 presidential season as Democrats seek to break out from the crowded field. While the candidates have been courting voters in key states for several months already, the vast majority of the nation has yet to pay close attention to the diverse field.
Most of Warren's rivals Wednesday night, including former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, called for universal health care, but also favored preserving the private insurance market. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who will be in a second debate group Thursday night, has proposed a "Medicare for All" system without private insurance, and Warren said she agreed with him.
No one on stage attacked Warren by name in the early minutes of a largely civil debate in which most of the candidates leaned into their party's focus on class warfare.
"I think of it this way. Who is this economy really working for? It's doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top," Warren declared. "That is corruption pure and simple ... and we need to make structural change."
One of the few voices for the moderate wing of the Democratic Party on stage, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, pushed back: "We should be the party that keeps what's working and fixes what's broken," he said. "Why do we have to stand for taking away something from people."
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who joined Warren in raising his hand on health insurance, cast the debate as part of "the battle for the heart and soul of our party."
Wednesday night featured a collection of 10 candidates, led by Warren, on national television for two hours. The overall field is so large that a second group of 10 Democrats, led by early front-runner Joe Biden, are to debate 24 hours later.
The groupings were chosen at random by debate host NBC.
Democrats are unified in their deep desire to beat Trump but divided on what kind of candidate is best positioned to do so.
On one side: candidates like Warren who are demanding dramatic change that includes embracing liberal policy priorities like free universal health care, debt-free college, a forgiving immigration policy and higher taxes on the rich. On the other: pragmatic-minded Democrats like Biden — and little-known former Maryland Rep. John Delaney — who are calling for modest policy solutions that could ultimately attract bipartisan support.
Wednesday's slate also featured Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Tim Ryan of Ohio, along with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and ex-Obama Housing Secretary Julián Castro.
Trump, the elephant not in the room, was in the air traveling to Japan for a round of trade talks as Democrats faced the nation for the first time in the 2020 campaign.
Earlier in the day, he confirmed that he would watch the debate from Air Force One.
His first tweet of the night: "BORING!"