Joe Biden repeatedly found himself on the defense in the Democratic debate Thursday night as opponents raised questions about his positions on immigration and abortion right, as well as his comments on working with segregationists in the Senate.
About 50 people attended a local watch party organized by Make it Work Nevada and NARAL Pro-Choice Nevada to view the second Democratic debate.
Alongside the former vice president, the lineup for the debate included Sens. Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Bennet; self-help author Marianne Williamson; former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and Rep. Eric Swalwell.
Multiple candidates pushed against Biden with California Rep. Eric Swalwell suggesting Biden “pass the torch” to the next generation.
“I’m still holding onto that torch,” Biden shot back.
But the most biting moment came when California Sen. Kamala Harris addressed Biden over nostalgic comments he made about his time working in the Senate working with a pair of segregationists.
“As the only African-American on stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race,” Harris interrupted moderators, launching a wave of laughter through the watch party.
Harris then turned her comments to Biden and slammed him over his record on race and his opposition to busing minority students to better school districts before revealing that she herself had been a beneficiary of busing.
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day, and that little girl was me,” Harris said.
The moment was a showstopper for local watch partygoers who snapped for and applauded Harris.
“Look at his face!” a watcher yelled out after the camera panned to a close up on Biden’s profile following Harris’s comments.
Biden did not take the attack lying down and defended himself by saying he didn’t oppose busing in the U.S.: “What I opposed was busing ordered by the Department of Education.” He noted that he became a public defender — rather than a prosecutor, as she was. His reply did not play well among the watch partygoers.
Sanders, who has been polling well, stuck to his typical populist message of Medicare for all, taking on Wall Street and addressing income inequality.
While his standard rhetoric may not have made him stand out in the debate, his supporters stood behind him.
“Obviously Bernie Sanders always stands out,” said Luke Baber, 30, an independent lighting contractor who attended the watch party. He also praised Harris and said that while Marianne Williamson was not a viable candidate he was surprised by Marianne Williamson, adding that he supported many of her points.
In Baber’s view, the night was “all about attacking Bidden. And every candidate that was at the top did a good job of going after Biden.”
Baber said he appreciates that Sanders can always drive the debate toward progressive issues. Sanders policies dominated the conversation during the debate. Rather than focus on whether the federal government should provide insurance, candidates debated over what the best plan was to move beyond Obamacare and toward government-run health care, a big difference from the 2016 Democratic debates.
When asked if they would support Medicare for All to the extent of abolishing private healthcare, both Sanders and Harris raised their hands. Harris now says she misunderstood the question. All 10 candidates raised their hands when asked if their health plans would cover undocumented immigrants.
Baber said he wished the debate would have focused more time on tax codes and labor laws, which he believes are “issues that directly speak to people’s pocketbooks and put food on the table.”
Monique Normand, 37, a social worker who attended the watch party, declared Harris the winner of the night. Normand said Harris that she did a good job at kept candidates on topic and “brought it back to working-class families” in a personal and relatable way.
“And of course I think Bernie always stands out,” Normand added laughing. “I don’t know how great his chances are. Young people love him but I think older people have a problem with him so that’s where he stands.”
An unexpected standout for Normand was Williamson, spiritual adviser to Oprah. Normand said hadn’t paid attention to the author until the debate and while she said Williansom had no shot at the presidency she expressed “a lot of good points.”
Normand said she was hoping student debt relief would be discussed more during the debate and wanted candidates to give “clear examples” of policy ideas to address the student loan crisis.
“I feel like a lot of the people in this room and young people overall have college debt. I know I have college debt,” Normand said.
On college tuition, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he was skeptical of providing universal college tuition, questioning why wealthier students should be subsidized by working-class taxpayers.
Candidates also didn’t miss the chance to criticize President Donald Trump on the debate stage. Harris took swings at Trump’s tax plan and his immigration policy while calling him the “greatest national security threat to the United States.” Sanders called Trump a “pathological liar and a racist.”
Erica Washington, the executive director of Make it Work Nevada which hosted the event, said what stood out to her most about the debate was the diversity of the candidates.
“There are so many women and people of color and LGBT people who are on the stage,” Washington said. “To have a woman for president or a black woman for president or a gay man for president, it’s not so far fetched and I’m really excited about that.”