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Amid Impeachment Spotlight, Presidential Candidates Vie For Attention


It's safe to say the impeachment inquiry has been sucking up a lot of the political oxygen recently, and that's made it more difficult for the Democratic presidential candidates to distinguish themselves over the past few weeks. Last night, though, 10 of those candidates took the debate stage in Atlanta, attempting to outline policies they believe separate them from the rest of the field. But that very issue of impeachment proved pretty impossible to ignore. NPR's Asma Khalid was at the debate and joins us this morning from Atlanta. We also have NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson with us from Washington.

Good morning to you both.


ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So Senator Elizabeth Warren got the first question on impeachment and very quickly tried to pivot it to a message about corruption, also taking - kind of taking advantage of the impeachment issue. She was talking about the impeachment witness, EU ambassador and Trump inauguration donor Gordon Sondland. Let's listen.


ELIZABETH WARREN: How did Ambassador Sondland get there? You know, this is not a man who had any qualifications except one. He wrote a check for a million dollars. And that tells us about what's happening in Washington.

GREENE: Asma, as we listen to that, I mean, what do you make of how the candidates handled the issue impeachment last night?

KHALID: Yeah, so David, I think how Elizabeth Warren in particular answered that question told us a bit about what she sees, which is that essentially - she, you know, made the point that anybody who wants to give her money shouldn't ask to be an ambassador. You know, she was asked, actually - the explicit question was about how she intends to convince Senate Republicans to vote for impeachment. She briefly talked about that but then pivoted back to this corruption message.

And what that tells me is something that I consistently hear out on the campaign trail, which is that Democratic voters do not want to extensively be talking about impeachment. They feel like if all they are talking about is Donald Trump - no doubt, they want to defeat Donald Trump, but if all they are talking about is that, they don't think that their odds in a general election are going to be great.

So what we saw last night is candidates who wanted to talk about health care, child care, climate change, all these other issues. And, you know, the - even the former vice president, he was asked about impeachment. But what I saw was him similarly pivot away even though his name has come up at times during these impeachment inquiry hearings. He made the case for his electability. It's, again, a message he has been touting for months. He said that if he's learned anything in this impeachment inquiry, it's that Donald Trump does not want him to be the nominee.

GREENE: Well, I want to turn to Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who has really been on the rise and leading polls in Iowa, seeming like he's beginning to spike in polls in New Hampshire. And in a moment like this when there are so many candidates, that usually means he's going to be the target of a lot of attacks. And I do want to play one moment when that happened last night. This is Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.


AMY KLOBUCHAR: And Mayor, I have all appreciation for your good work as a local official - and you did not when you tried. I also have actually done this work. I think experience should matter.

RACHEL MADDOW: Mayor Buttigieg, I'll let you respond to that.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: So first of all, Washington experience is not the only experience that matters. There's more than a hundred years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?


GREENE: Mara Liasson, I mean, for Buttigieg, experience was always going to become an issue if he ever rose in the polls. I mean, how worried should he be? Was he really under attack last night?

LIASSON: He really wasn't. You heard Amy Klobuchar. She's the senator from Minnesota, so she made a very Minnesota-nice kind of attack on him. And she's been saying - she also talked about how women are held to a double standard, that if a woman was the mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana, she would be considered not experienced enough to be president.

But I think that if the other candidates were trying to stop the rise of Mayor Pete, you couldn't really tell last night. They didn't seem to have the appetite for going for the jugular. And that could be either because they think that his rise is going to fizzle, that it doesn't have staying power or that it's just too early or too risky to go after another candidate so aggressively in a multicandidate field because it can boomerang.

GREENE: Well, Asma, then let me ask you about Elizabeth Warren. I mean, coming in to this - I mean, there's been this focus on whether Warren would raise taxes on the middle class to pay for her "Medicare for All" plan. Since the last debate, she put her plan out there. It's been criticized. Was that central last night? How did that come up?

KHALID: You know, David, she has actually put out two plans since the last debate. She's put out one plan that indicates how she intends to pay for Medicare for All. A second plan she put out just last week spells out how she intends to transition to that Medicare for All system that would eliminate private insurance. And I would say, out on the campaign trail, she has gotten plenty of criticism from candidates. I would say, you know, Bernie Sanders has even made an implicit criticism, suggesting that he would do this more quickly. Folks like Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg have suggested this is really an untenable plan, that she's not being straight with people, that middle-class taxes would increase.

But I would say we did not see any of those particularly sharp criticisms on display on the debate stage. And to me, you know, look; I don't know - that maybe we could make the argument that perhaps we are seeing sharper critiques off of the debate stage, on the campaign trail because for much of this campaign season, the debates have not fundamentally, substantially shifted the needle in who's up and who's down in this race.

GREENE: Well, one moment where maybe someone was trying to shift the needle - Senator Cory Booker challenged Elizabeth Warren, criticizing her wealth tax, also her focus on income redistribution. Let's listen to that.


CORY BOOKER: But the people and communities I frequent, they're not - aspiration for their lives is not just to have those fair wages. They want to have an economy that provides not just equalities and wealth, but they want to have equalities of opportunity. And that's what our party has to be about as well.

GREENE: Mara, it seems like Booker is trying to really show a difference between how different Democrats approach the economy. What did this moment mean to you?

LIASSON: Well, there is a big difference between how different Democrats approach the economy. This is the most substantive and longstanding debate in the Democratic Party. Do you want to redistribute the pie, or do you want to grow the economy and then redistribute? And you've got someone in the top tier, Elizabeth Warren, who has a tax-the-rich program. She wants to tax billionaires, she says, to pay for her myriad and very expensive programs.

Other candidates say there're just not enough billionaires to make the math add up. And then you've got somebody - Cory Booker - who's really struggling to stay on the stage. He hasn't qualified for the December debate. And he's presenting the message that Democrats have to both spread the wealth but also grow the economy so that minority communities in particular don't just get a higher minimum wage, but they also are able to create their own businesses.

GREENE: Asma, I want to ask you about one thing Senator Kamala Harris said. She said that, quote, "we've got to recreate the Obama coalition to win," end quote. Can any of these candidates pull together the same coalition that Barack Obama did?

KHALID: Thus far, we are not seeing any candidate pull together that coalition. Different candidates have different elements of it. We see Bernie Sanders doing really well with young people. We see Joe Biden doing particularly well with African American voters. But look; I saw that to be a indirect critique of the Pete Buttigieg campaign.

GREENE: NPR's Asma Khalid and NPR's Mara Liasson wrapping up last night's Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta, Ga., for us this morning. Thank you both.

LIASSON: Thank you.

KHALID: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIGHTMARES ON WAX'S "YOU WISH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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