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Recap: 2020 Democratic candidates debate in Atlanta

Atlanta debate participants
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These are the ten Democratic presidential candidates participating in the Atlanta debate.
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The ten candidates participating in the Atlanta Dems debate stand side by side on the stage.
Amy-Klobuchar
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Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks at the Atlanta debate.
Tom-Steyer-debate
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Billionaire candidate Tom Steyer speaks at the Dems debate in Atlanta.

ATLANTA, Georgia --  Ten presidential candidates took the stage Wednesday night at the fifth Democratic debate in Atlanta.

Here's a look back at what the candidates said about the issues as the debate unfolded...

Who spoke the most during the debate

The final count is in, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren led the group with more than 13 minutes in speaking time. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who had more than 12 minutes, came in second. See the full breakdown.

Buttigieg: "Washington experience is not the only experience that matters"

Pete Buttigieg defend his level of experience on Wednesday in contentious exchanges with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, using the debate to argue “Washington experience is not the only experience that matters.”

The most contentious point of Buttigieg’s defense came when the mayor said, “There’s more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country.”

Buttigieg’s experience – he leads a city of just over 100,000 people, has only ever been elected by a few voters thousand and lost his only statewide election – has been a central question about his candidacy. And it was clear on Wednesday that his competitors came into the debate looking to questions his qualifications.

When Buttigieg mentioned voting rights, Klobuchar jumped in and said the issue is a “good example of where (Buttigieg) has said the right words” but not followed it up with action and called the mayor a “local official.”

“I have actually done this work,” Klobuchar said.

Buttigieg fired back.

“Washington experience is not the only experience that matters,” he said, nodding not only his time as mayor, but his experience as a war veteran.“I would submit that this is the kind of experience we need, not just to go to Washington, but to change it before it is too late,” Buttigieg said.

Then Gabbard jumped and said Buttigieg showed a lack of judgment when he suggested using the U.S. military to help combat cartel violence along the border for security cooperation.

“That is outlandish, even by the standards of today’s politics, Buttigieg responded. “Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico? … I’m talking about building alliances.”

The mayor then hit Gabbard for meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Let’s also talk about judgment. One of the foreign leaders you mentioned meeting was Bashar al-Assad,” Buttigieg said.

Gabbard responded by noting how past leaders met with opposing leaders, citing when President John F. Kennedy met with Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev and former President Franklin Roosevelt met with Russian leader Joseph Stalin.

Buttigieg interrupted, “Like Donald Trump who met with Kim,” a nod to North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un.

Biden says he was endorsed by the only black woman elected to the Senate (then corrects himself)

Former Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he was endorsed by the only African American woman ever elected to the Senate, leading California Sen. Kamala Harris, his 2020 rival and the second black woman elected to the Senate, to laugh and point out that Biden was wrong.

Biden appeared to be referring to former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman elected to the Senate -- though not the only one. Moseley Braun is a strong Biden supporter.

"I said the first," Biden said as Harris reacted.

Pete Buttigieg acknowledges the challenge he faces with winning over black voters

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg acknowledged the most existential threat to his candidacy at Wednesday’s debate – his lack of African American support – and accepted implicit criticism by California Sen. Kamala Harris by saying he agrees with her views on the importance of black voters.

Buttigieg’s lack of black support, especially in South Carolina, has been a critical issue for the mayor of South Bend and something he has been trying to address for months. But his work has done little and a recent poll in the southern state – where the Democratic primary electorate is expected to be heavily African American – found he has 0% support.

Harris, in response to question about past comments she made about Buttigieg’s support, said that her answer came in response to the Buttigieg campaign using a stock photo that was taken in Kenya as an image related to his plan aimed at racial equality on a host of issues. The Buttigieg campaign apologized for using the photo, but said they were not aware the photo was taken in Kenya when it was used.

Harris didn’t focus on the photo issue very long – “I believe the mayor has made apologies for that,” she said – and instead turned to the importance of black voters in an implicit criticism of the mayor.“The larger issue is that for too long candidates have taken for granted constituencies that have been the backbone of the Democratic Party and has overlooked those constituencies,” she said.

When the conversation turned to Buttigieg, the mayor said, “I completely agree.”

“And I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don’t yet know me,” Buttigieg said. “And before I share what’s in my plans, let me talk about what’s in my heart and why this is so important.”

Buttigieg went on to talk about his time as mayor of South Bend, a city that is over a quarter black, and his faith.

“I care about this because my faith teaches me that salvation has to do with how I make myself useful to those who have been excluded, marginalized, and cast aside and oppressed in society," he said.

But he closed out the answer by talking about his sexuality:

“While I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate, and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me,” he said. “Making it possible for me to be standing here, wearing this wedding ring in a way that couldn’t have happened two elections ago, lets me know just how deep my obligation is to help those whose rights are on the line every day, even if they are nothing like me in their experience.”

Booker takes a jab at Biden's recent remarks on legalizing marijuana

Former Vice President Joe Biden continued to face criticism tonight from his 2020 rivals for his stance on the legalization of marijuana.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker went after Biden's recent remarks at a town hall in Las Vegas, where he said he still opposes legalizing marijuana on the federal level and told attendees that he wants to see more study on whether it is a "gateway drug.""I thought you might have been high when you said that," Booker told Biden.

The remark drew laughter from the audience.

Biden went on to defend his position, saying he thinks marijuana should be decriminalized.

"Anyone who has a record should be let out of jail, their records expunged and be completely zeroed out, but I do think makes sense based on data that we should study what the long-term effects are for the use of marijuana," he said.

Biden says the culture of violence against women needs to be addressed by "punching at it"

During a discussion on sexual violence and harassment against women in the US, former Vice President Joe Biden explained that the US needs to change its culture.

"No man has a right to raise a hand to a woman in anger other than in self-defense and that rarely ever occurs. So we have to just change the culture. Period. And we have to keep punching at it and punching at it and punching at it. I really mean it. It's a gigantic issue," Biden said.

Sanders calls out Biden over war votes, criticizes Israel's actions in Gaza

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders drew a bright line between his and former Vice President Joe Biden's foreign policy views, pointing to his opposition to both of America’s wars in Iraq.

"One of the big differences between the Vice President and myself is he supported the terrible war in Iraq and I helped lead the opposition against it,” Sanders said. “And not only that, I voted against the very first Gulf War.”

Sanders pushed further, saying as he so often does on the trail, that “we need a foreign policy which understands who our enemies are” and “that we don't have to spend more money on the military than the next 10 nations combined.”

He responded to the initial question, which asked whether he would negotiate with the Taliban as a means of ending the war in Afghanistan, with a pledge to work with allies to do whatever it takes to stop the conflict.

“I will (end the war there) by working with the international community,” Sanders said, “and, if it's necessary to negotiate with the Taliban, then of course we will do that.”

But, given the current administration’s recent actions to pull troops out of Syria without warning, Sanders also said he would take a different approach to the process.

“Unlike Trump, I will not do it through a tweet at 3 o'clock in the morning,” Sanders said. “I will do it working with the international community.

Sanders also took a step away from the party establishment consensus by calling out Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza.

“It is no longer good enough for us simply to be pro-Israel. I am pro-Israel,” he said. “But we must treat the Palestinian people as well with the respect and dignity they deserve," to applause from the debate hall.

Sanders claims Americans spend twice as much on health care than other countries

Sen. Bernie Sanders said the US has a health care system “in which we spend twice as much as do the people of any other country.”

At $10,586 per capita in 2018, US spending was well over twice the OECD average ($3,992) and well over twice the figures for some other major countries, including Canada ($4,974). 

Here's what Yang would tell Putin if elected president

Businessman Andrew Yang didn't pull punches when asked about what he would tell Russian President Vladimir Putin during their first call if elected president.

"First I'd say I'm sorry I beat your guy," Yang said, to laughs and applause. "Or not sorry. And second I would say the days of meddling in American elections are over. And we will take any undermining of our democratic processes as an act of hostility and aggression."

Yang added that the Russia had "made it so that we can't even trust our own democracy."

Harris: "Donald Trump got punked" on North Korea

California Sen. Kamala Harris went after President Donald Trump on his response to North Korea.

Asked whether she'd make concessions to the North Korean leader to keep talks going, Harris said, "Donald Trump got punked."

She went on to say that Trump has conducted his foreign policy "born on a fragile ego." Harris listed a series of Trump administration policies that she considered failures, including pulling out of the Paris climate agreement.

Harris said Trump is the "greatest threat to the national security of our nation at this moment."

Buttigieg: "I don’t think this President cares one bit about farmers"

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg slammed President Donald Trump for the ongoing trade war impacting farmers across the country, bluntly stating that he doesn’t believe “this President cares one bit about farmers.”

Buttigieg said he would continue to provide farm subsidies as President, something Trump has done to help farmers deal with the trade war. But he added that he doesn’t believe farmers would need them under his leadership “because we are going to fix the trade war.”

Buttigieg noted that those payments aren’t “even making farmers whole” and specifically called out soybean farmers, who he said are getting “killed” by the tariffs and other factors.

The Trump administration, in response to retaliatory tariffs implemented by China on a host of American agriculture products, has begun a series of direct payments to farmers who are struggling to sell their products.

Farmers have already received $6.8 billion this year from the trade mitigation package, according to the US Department of Agriculture. The first round of payments was made over the summer and was meant to cover 50% of what farmers are due this year.

But Democrats have argued that those payments would not be needed if the President hadn’t started the trade war to begin with.

Steyer calls climate change a top priority and a "state of emergency"

Billionaire businessman Tom Steyer was animated tonight in Atlanta when discussing climate change, a top priority for his presidential campaign and a "state of emergency."

"I'm the only person on this stage who will say that climate is the number one priority for me. It's a state of emergency and I would declare a state of emergency on day one," Steyer said to applause.

What else Steyer has said about climate change: During his town hall on Nov. 10, he also pledged to demand Congress to pass a version of the Green New Deal during his first 100 days in office.

"I've spent over a decade fighting oil companies and beating them at the ballot box. I've led the charge for clean energy across the country at the ballot box," Steyer said. "I've worked to stop pipelines. I've worked to stop fossil fuel plants. We're talking about the future, but you can look at my history and know that this is something that is an absolutely top priority for me."

Tulsi Gabbard and Kamala Harris get into heated exchange

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard slammed the Democratic Party at Wednesday’s debate, accusing Hillary Clinton and other Democrats of having the same views on war as former President George W. Bush and President Donald Trump.

The attack led California Sen. Kamala Harris to hit back at Gabbard, saying that it is “unfortunate that we have someone on this stage that is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for the President of the United States who during the Obama administration has spent four years full-time on Fox News criticizing President Obama” and “full-time criticizing people on this stage, affiliated with the Democratic Party.”

Gabbard’s answer came in response to a question about Hillary Clinton recently telling an interviewer that the Hawaii congresswoman is being groomed for a third party run and is a “favorite of the Russians.”

Gabbard said on Wednesday that the Democratic Party “has been, and continues to be, influenced by the foreign policy establishment represented by Hillary Clinton.”

Harris, among other issues, slammed Gabbard for failing to “call a war criminal by what he is as a war criminal,” nodding to Gabbard’s past comments about Syrian Leader Bashar al-Assad.

Gabbard responded by acknowledging her own military service and saying, “What Sen. Harris is doing is unfortunately continuing to traffic in lies and smears and innuendos because she cannot challenge the substance of the argument that I’m making.

“I’m seeking to bring in our foreign policy, which only makes me guess that she will, as president, continue the status quo, continue the Bush-Clinton-Trump foreign policy of regime change wars, which is deeply destructive,” Gabbard concluded.

Sanders: This country is not as divided as it seems, Trump aside

Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t render a moral verdict on Democrats who chant “Lock him up!” at President Trump, but he did take a stab at what was at the root of the urge.“I think the people of this country are catching on to the degree that this President thinks he is above the law,” Sanders said.

“The American people are saying nobody is above the law,” he said, and that, if Trump committed a crime, “he should be prosecuted like any other individual who breaks the law.”

But Sanders also rejected the suggestion that country was, as had been suggested by the moderators, near hopelessly divided.

"When you talk about the pain of working families it is not true (that the country is divided),” Sanders said, then ticking off a list of issues where he — and some polling — shows signs of a growing consensus.

“The majority of the American people want to raise the minimum wage to a living wage,” he said, before turning to climate change and gun control: “When you talk about the climate crisis, the overwhelming majority of the American people know that it is real, they know we have to take on the fossil fuel industry, they know we have to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel.”

"Even on issues like guns,” Sanders added, “the American people are coming together to end the horrific level of gun violence."

Here's who's talked the most so far

As of 10 p.m. ET, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has talked for more than five minutes. Meanwhile, billionaire businessman Tom Steyer has talked for about a minute and a half. Here's the full rundown of how much everyone has spoken as of 10 p.m. ET.

Klobuchar raised $17,000 for first campaign from ex-boyfriends

Amy Klobuchar said she raised $17,000 for her first campaign for US Senate in 2006 from ex-boyfriends.

"My first Senate race I literally called everyone I knew and I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends," she said. "I'd like to point out it is not an expanding base."

Klobuchar came as she was talking about gerrymandering and needing to do something to fix the system to make sure "we don't have money in politics from the outside."

Harris: "We have a criminal living in the White House"

During her remarks, California Sen. Kamala Harris addressed the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, which reached a crescendo today with the bombshell testimony from EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland.

"First of all, we have a criminal living in the White House. And there is no question that in 2020 the biggest issue before us until we get to that tender moment is justice on the ballot. And what we saw today, Ambassador Sondland by his own words told us, that everyone was in the loop. That means, it is a criminal enterprise engaged in by the President, from what we heard today, the Vice President, the Secretary of State and chief of staff," Harris said.

Earlier today: EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland confirmed for all to see that there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine, that Trump withheld a White House meeting until Ukraine launched investigations into the Bidens.

"I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo?" Sondland said. "As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes."

Democrats speed through their ongoing health care debate

An abridged version of the health care debate that’s played out in every Democratic presidential debate so far took place again early in Wednesday night’s showdown -- with candidates sticking with their now-familiar stances.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren touted the benefits of "Medicare for All." When moderators turned to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, he said, “Thank you, I wrote the damn bill!”

Former Vice President Joe Biden said Medicare for All is politically unpopular. “It couldn’t pass the United States Senate right now with Democrats. It couldn’t pass the House,” he said, arguing instead for a public option.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg touted “Medicare for all who want it” -- his more moderate proposal -- as “something that as a governing strategy we can unify the American people around.”

Buttigieg invokes Obama in defense of his call for unity, not polarization

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg invoked recent comments from former President Barack Obama, arguing that he can unite the country when Obama couldn’t because of new consensus around a host of issues including even once controversial topics like immigration and guns.

“As President Obama commented recently, we are not in a different reality than we were even 12 years ago,” Buttigieg said. “There is an American majority that stands ready to tackle big issues that didn’t exist in the same way even a few years ago.”

After mentioning immigration and guns – two issues he said Democrats were once on the defense about – Buttigieg added, “We have a majority to do the right thing if we can galvanize, not polarize, that majority.”

Obama, at a high-dollar donor confab earlier this month, urged the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls to “pay some attention to where voters actually are,” warning them about going so far on certain policies that they become out of step with voters.

“My one cautionary note is I think it is very important for all the candidates who are running at every level to pay some attention to where voters actually are,” Obama said, specifically saying he doesn’t think candidates should be “diluted into thinking that the resistance to certain approaches to things is simply because voters haven’t heard a bold enough proposal.”

Sanders on Medicare for All: "I wrote the damn bill"

Sen. Bernie Sanders quipped "I wrote the damn bill" following Sen. Elizabeth Warren's lengthy answer on "Medicare for All."

Warren had been talking for a while about her plan for Medicare for All, a policy proposed by Sanders, when the moderator eventually asked Sanders for his response.

Elizabeth Warren says she won't give away ambassador posts "to the highest bidder”

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren lambasted wealthy campaign donors receiving ambassadorships as the Democratic debate kicked off with questions about impeachment.

Implicitly referencing Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland -- who had contributed $1 million to Trump’s inaugural fund and testified in front of a House panel on Wednesday -- Warren offered a warning to campaign donors.

“Don’t ask to be an ambassador, because I’m not going to have that happen,” she said.“We are not going to give away ambassador posts to the highest bidder,” Warren said.

In October, Warren released a proposal that included a pledge to cut off the donor-to-ambassador pipeline.

"My plan will make it the law by prohibiting campaign donations and political spending from being a consideration in the selection of an ambassador," she wrote.

Warren also said she would encourage Republican senators to vote to remove Trump from office, and said her argument to them would begin with encouraging GOP lawmakers to read Robert Mueller’s report.

Sanders: Trump is "likely the most corrupt President in the modern history of America"

Following a day filled with testimonies in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, Sen. Bernie Sanders used his first speaking opportunity at the Democratic debate in Atlanta to address the President.

"He is likely the most corrupt President in the modern history of America. But we cannot simply be confirmed by Donald Trump. Because if we are, we are going to lose the election," Sanders said.

Sanders went on to mention issues like health care and climate change are more pressing concerns.

The first question is on impeachment

The debate opened with a question on impeachment.

Earlier in the day, three US officials testified publicly before the House Intelligence Committee as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow asked Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren if she will try to convince her Republicans colleagues to vote for impeachment.

Here's what she replied: "We have to establish the principle no one is above the law."

The candidates are on stage and the debate just started

The Democratic presidential candidates have taken the stage in Atlanta.

The candidates are:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker
  • South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
  • California Sen. Kamala Harris
  • Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar
  • Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
  • Businessman Tom Steyer
  • Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
  • Businessman Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang: "I miss Beto"

Andrew Yang is sad.

Yang, the businessman-turned-politician who has mounted an unexpectedly strong presidential campaign, tweeted before the fifth Democratic debate that he wished a certain former candidate was still around.

Beto O'Rourke, the former Texas congressman, ended his campaign earlier this month.

The two got to know each other backstage at town halls and debates.

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