Analysis: The debate over the Democratic candidate — and the direction of the party — is just getting started

It wasn’t all about Donald Trump.

At the opening Democratic debate Wednesday night, the 10 contenders on stage focused mostly not on the Republican incumbent — after all, there was little disagreement there on the threat they said he posed to the republic — but rather on the direction of the Democratic Party.

On that there was a real debate, and one that’s only getting started.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for abolishing private health insurance coverage in favor of a government-run system. “I’m with Bernie (Sanders) on Medicare-for-All,” she declared, a friendly reference to her biggest rival to lead the party’s most progressive voters. But Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar cautioned that she was “concerned about kicking half of America off their health insurance in four years.”

And when former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke said he would keep private coverage as an option, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio demanded almost angrily: “How can you defend a system that’s not working?”

Democratic presidential candidates take part in the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami. (Photo: Brynn Anderson, AP)

The two-hour debate spotlighted differences over just how far left the Democratic Party should move, though it clearly has moved left on some economic and other issues since the last election, and what voters it should target. That divide is likely to be in even sharper relief Thursday night, when the second-day debate with another 10 contenders will feature former vice president Joe Biden standing side-by-side with Sanders on the Miami stage.

That would be “Uncle Joe” from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and the Vermont senator who proudly calls himself a democratic socialist. Biden has been leading national polls of the Democratic contenders, and Sanders generally has been second.

At Wednesday’s forum, hosted by NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, the candidates avoided the name-calling and derisive nicknames that Trump used four years ago to dominate the Republican primaries. That contest also included a field of candidates so large that their early debates had to be held over two nights. 

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That said, former Housing secretary Julian Castro went after his fellow Texan, former congressman Beto O’Rourke, over their differences on immigration. “If you did your homework on this issue,” Castro began a back-and-forth exchange that reflected long-standing grievances between the two on the issue.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan clashed with some heat on the United States involvement in Afghanistan.

And Klobuchar slapped down Washington Gov. Jay Inslee after he bragged that he was the only candidate who had “passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive health.”

“I just want to say there are three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” she said dryly. 

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