Susan Page, USA TODAY Published 6: 08 am ET Nov. 21, 2019 Updated 7: 40 am ET Nov. 21, 2019
The fifth Democratic presidential candidates debate took place in Atlanta while an ongoing impeachment inquiry raged on Capitol Hill. USA TODAY
OK, but who can win?
In a marathon day, congressional Democratsled explosive hearingsto consider whether the House should impeach President Donald Trump – with almost no expectation that the Republican-controlled Senate would then vote to remove him from office.
During a slow-starting Democratic debate in the evening, 10 presidential hopefuls finally got animated when they argued about how they would defeat Trump – amid nervousness among many in the party that they could hand the president a second term by making the wrong choice.
“The issue isn’t what is the fight; the issue is, how are we going to win?” Sen. Kamala Harris of California said, suggesting that Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, wouldn’t be able to generate strong turnout among African Americans, the party’s most loyal voters. “We have to rebuild the Obama coalition.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar questioned whether Buttigieg’s tenure as mayor of a small, Democratic-leaning city meant he could win in red and purple districts, as she has in Minnesota. “He said the right words, but I have the experience,” she said. “I think experience should matter.”
Buttigieg was ready for that charge.
“I know that from the perspective of Washington, what goes on in my city might look small, “he said. “But frankly, where we live, the infighting on Capitol Hill is what looks small.” The focus on Buttigieg reflected hisremarkable rise to the front of the fieldin the opening states of Iowa and New Hampshire since the last debate, in October. That made him a target.
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But the tone of the debate, sponsored by MSNBC and The Washington Post, was largely civil, and the candidates’ efforts to draw sharp distinctions with one another more subdued than in previous forums.
That may have reflected the sobering effect of the impeachment hearings, which have convinced many Democrats of two things: that Trump committed impeachable offenses, and impeachment is not likely to remove him from office.
That is more likely to depend on the 2020 election.
The evening was a object lesson in the way Trump and the impeachment debate are defining the moment, a reality likely to continue through the end of this year and into the beginning of next. The House investigation of the president, and the Senate trial that would follow passage of Articles of Impeachment, are both taking the spotlight from and heightening the stakes for the Democrats who want to succeed him.
All that has overshadowed the ideological divides in the sprawling field. Perhaps most notably, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts endorse Medicare for All, a far-reaching overhaul of the health care system that former Vice President Joe Biden called too radical to sell to swing voters or pass in Congress.
But Democratic voters say their top concern isn’t policy; it’s politics. In poll after poll, most say they care more about nominating a candidate who can win than they do about nominating one who agrees with them on issues.
On that front, there were some disquieting signs for Democrats in surveys released Wednesday before the debate. A Marquette University Law School Pollshowed Trump for the first time surging ahead of the top four Democratsin hypothetical head-to-head matchups in the crucial state of Wisconsin. And the Gallup Poll showed Trump’s national approval rating actually ticked up a bit as the impeachment hearings began, albeit to an anemic 43%.
At the debate, Biden argued he could not only win back the White House, but also help win back a Democratic majority in the Senate to make it possible to get things done. He noted his strong support among African Americans, though he stumbled in saying he has been endorsed by “the only black woman elected to the United States Senate.”
That was news to Harris, who is black. “I’m right here!”
Biden corrected himself, saying he had been endorsed by the (first) black woman elected to the Senate: former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois. It was an unwelcome reminder of his tendency to stumble verbally.
The forum in Atlanta opened about an hour after the House Intelligence Committee concluded an impeachment hearing at whichGordon Sondland, a Trump donor-turned-diplomat, testifiedthere had been a quid pro quo – a demand by the Trump team that nearly $ 400 million in military aid wouldn’t be released until Ukraine announced investigations into unsubstantiated allegations against Biden and his son, Hunter.
Biden, the frontrunner, tried to spin even that as a sign of his strength. “I learned that Donald Trump doesn’t want me to be the nominee, that’s pretty clear,” he said.
The presidential hopefuls fielded questions on addressing climate change, providing paid child care, protecting abortion rights, dealing with North Korea. But in a sign of how difficult it may be to command attention on the campaign trail while the impeachment proceedings continue on Capitol Hill, the discussions seemed a little flat compared to the bombshells that had exploded during the day’s hearings.
Because the real question for Democrats is: Who can win?
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