Joe Biden parried attack after attack from liberal rivals on everything from health care to immigration in a debate that showcased profound ideological divides between the Democratic Party’s moderate and progressive wings.
The prime-time debate also elevated several struggling candidates, giving them a chance to introduce themselves to millions of Americans who are just beginning to follow the race.
Mr Biden dominated significant parts of the evening, responding strongly when the liberal senators who are his closet rivals, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, assailed him and his policies.
Unlike prior debates, where Mr Biden struggled for words and seemed surprised by criticism from fellow Democrats, he largely delivered crisp, aggressive responses.
He called Mr Sanders “a socialist”, a label that could remind voters of the senator’s embrace of democratic socialism.
And Mr Biden slapped at Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax.
A two-term vice president under Barack Obama, Mr Biden unequivocally defended his former boss, who came under criticism from some candidates for deporting immigrants and not going far enough on health care reform.
“I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good bad and indifferent,” Mr Biden declared.
His vulnerabilities surfaced, however, in the final minutes of the debate, when he was pressed on a decades-old statement regarding school integration.
Mr Biden rambled in talking about his support of teachers, the lack of resources for educators and at one point seemed to encourage parents to play records for their children to expand their vocabulary before changing the subject to Latin America.
“That’s quite a lot,” quipped Julian Castro, the former housing secretary who was Mr Biden’s frequent foe during the debate.
The candidates debated with polls showing a strong majority of voters believe the country is heading in the wrong direction under the first-term president’s leadership.
But nine months into their nomination fight, divided Democrats have yet to answer fundamental questions about who or what the party stands for beyond simply opposing President Donald Trump.
I just stepped off the #DemDebate stage, where I laid out why I’m the only candidate who can take big progressive policies and create tangible results for working families.
If you liked what you heard, help us keep this momentum going by pitching in: https://t.co/btrAlw3PSA
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 13, 2019
The party’s 2020 class, once featuring two dozen candidates, has essentially been cut in half by party rules requiring higher polling and fundraising standards.
Just 10 candidates qualified for Thursday’s affair, though more than that have qualified for next month’s round.
Those in the second tier, after Mr Biden, Ms Warren and Mr Sanders, are under increasing pressure to break out of the pack.
We like our doctors, our nurses, and our pharmacists—not the insurance companies. What people want is affordable health care. What we need to fight for is #MedicareForAll. #DemDebate pic.twitter.com/Ndg5aId2lO
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) September 13, 2019
They all assailed Mr Trump.
New Jersey senator Cory Booker called Mr Trump a racist.
Former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke called him a white supremacist.
Kamala Harris, a California senator, said Mr Trump’s hateful social media messages provided “the ammunition” for recent mass shootings.
“President Trump, you have spent the last two-and-a-half years full time trying to sow hate and vision among us, and that’s why we’ve gotten nothing done,” Ms Harris charged.
I never believed Cheney and Bush. Unlike Joe Biden, not only did I vote against the Iraq War, I led the fight to prevent it. #DemDebate
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 13, 2019
In addition to Mr Trump, Mr Biden’s rivals also turned against Mr Obama’s legacy at times as they sought to undermine the former vice president’s experience.
Mr Sanders insisted that Mr Biden bears responsibility for millions of Americans going bankrupt under the “Obamacare” health care system.
Mr Castro raised questions about the Obama-Biden record on immigration, particularly the number of deportations that took place.
Mr Castro, a 44-year-old Texan, appeared to touch on concerns about Mr Biden’s age when he accused the former vice president of forgetting a detail about his own health care plan.
At 76, Mr Biden would be the oldest president ever elected to a first term.
“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” an incredulous Mr Castro asked, challenging Biden on health care.
“I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that you have to buy in and now you’re forgetting that.”
He added: “I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama and you’re not.”