Fiery Democratic debate tackles health care, immigration, gun violence, as candidates attack Trump

Top candidates shared the debate stage for the first time in the third debate of the Democratic presidential primary.

Ten hopefuls met Thursday in Houston. Former Vice President Joe Biden was at center stage along with two of his closest rivals, progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The three have not been on stage together during previous debates, which were split over two nights. Tougher requirements to qualify for the debate stage winnowed the number of candidates this time, resulting in a one-night debate.

Sens. Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and businessman Andrew Yang also debated. 

Early front-runner Biden took on the most fire at Thursday's Democratic presidential debate, and Castro was the most explicit in arguing it was time for a new generation.

Castro also seemed to allude to speculation about the 76-year-old Biden's mental acuity during an exchange about health care. When Biden denied that his health plan required people to buy into Medicare, Castro exclaimed, "Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?“

Sanders faced sharp criticism about his universal health care plan from several candidates, and Warren was more in the background than in prior debates but didn't damage herself.

The likely result is little change in a primary that has been remarkably static for months.

Yang says he supports a mix of options, including charter schools, in trying to fix the nation's education system.

The former tech entrepreneur said at Thursday night's debate that he is "pro-good school." 

Yang also said that his proposed "Freedom Dividend" would help lower-income families support their children's educational needs while alleviating teachers already overburdened because many are going beyond classroom instruction, compensating for support some students aren't getting at home.

Democratic presidential hopefuls (L-R) Senator of New Jersey Cory Booker, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, Senator of Vermont Bernie Sanders, Former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator of Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren, Senator of Californ

Several candidates, including Buttigieg, Harris and Warren, advocated for raising teacher salaries — something Booker noted that "we actually did it" as mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

Both Warren and Sanders promoted student debt cancellation plans. Harris, a graduate of a historically black university or college, noted her proposal to put $2 billion toward the institutions' teacher training programs, drawing applause from the audience at Texas Southern University, a Houston HBCU.

Sanders is again refusing to call Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro a "dictator," calling him instead "a vicious tyrant" at Thursday night's Democratic primary debate.

Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, is also calling a question from the moderator asking him to contrast his vision of socialism with Maduro's government "deeply unfair. He says he supports Canada's and Scandinavia's policies of universal health care and offering paid family leave and a living wage, as well as wresting control over major institutions from a small number of wealthy Americans.

Maduro's 2018 reelection has been disputed, and the United States has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. His leadership has seen the country fall into economic and political upheaval, with residents facing food shortages and the Venezuelan currency losing value.

Buttigieg, the only combat veteran on the Democratic presidential debate stage in Houston is reminding the audience that many new military inductees were newborns when the U.S. was attacked 18 years ago.

The mayor’s comments on Thursday came the day after the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The debate was an opportunity for him to bring up his proposal to seek an authorization for the use of military force with a built-in three-year sunset that Congress would be required to renew.

Buttigieg says, "We have got to put an end to endless war.“

Buttigieg also says that President Donald Trump treats "troops as props, or worse, tools for his own enrichment." That final dig is an allusion to the Trump administration's rerouting of U.S. military personnel to overnight stays at his Trump Turnberry golf resort in Scotland.

Warren says that she would repair the country's trade relationships by leveraging desired access to American markets.

Saying the United States' trade policy has "been broken for decades," the Massachusetts senator said Thursday in the Houston debate that the heft of the American market should be used in negotiating with other countries in ways that are fair to workers, farms and small businesses.

The comments come as the United States and China prepare to relaunch trade talks next month amid an escalating tariff dispute.

The countries have been trading conciliatory gestures, raising hopes they can de-escalate a standoff over trade that has shaken financial markets and cast gloom over the global economy.

Buttigieg says President Donald Trump "clearly has no strategy" in his trade war with China.

The South Bend, Indiana, mayor and other candidates were asked during Thursday's debate in Houston about the tariffs Trump has imposed on China. The country has retaliated with tariffs that have hit U.S. farmers and some other industries hard.

Trump has scoffed at Buttigieg's candidacy, often saying he'd like to see the 37-year-old make a deal with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Buttigieg says, "I'd like to see him make a deal with Xi Jinping." He says, "Wasn't that supposed to happen in, like, April?"

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar also was critical of Trump, saying he's treating farmers and workers "like poker chips in one of his bankrupt casinos.“

Several of the Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination say they would loosen restrictions on immigration put into place under the Trump administration.

Warren said at Thursday's debate that she would expand pathways to citizenship, blaming current problems on the United States' withdrawal of aid to Central America. She says "a crisis that Donald Trump has created and hopes to profit from politically.“

Yang noted his status as the son of immigrants and called immigration "positive for our economic and social dynamism" and pledged to return immigration levels to those of the Obama administration.

Asked if President Donald Trump's supporters are racist, given the president's references to Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, Buttigieg said, "Anyone who supports this is supporting racism.“

Biden is dismissing questions about the Obama administration's record of deportations by touting the former Democratic president's effort to open doors to immigrants.

Instead of answering whether the deportations were a mistake, Biden noted Thursday during the Democratic presidential debate Obama's support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally.

Castro pounced on Biden, accusing him of standing by Obama when it suits him but sidestepping the administration's blemishes.

Castro says, "He wants to take credit for Obama's work, but doesn't want to answer any questions.“

Biden shot back angrily, "I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good, bad, indifferent.“

O'Rourke says "hell yes" he will institute mandatory buybacks for some machine guns if elected president.

In one of the biggest applause lines of the Thursday night presidential debate, O'Rourke described in vivid detail how bullets shot by semi-automatic rifles are designed to "shred everything inside your body.“

He said that if a gun is meant to "kill people on a battlefield ... hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15s, your AK-47s." While O'Rourke supports mandatory gun buybacks, other candidates believe such a program should be voluntary.

O'Rourke left the campaign trail last month to return to his hometown of El Paso after a gunman opened fire at a Walmart there, killing 22 people. He has sought to revitalize a flagging campaign by focusing on his gun violence plan.

O'Rourke's fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls are praising him for the support he showed for residents of his hometown following a massacre there last month.

Biden said Thursday on the debate stage that how the former Texas congressman "handled what happened in his hometown is meaningful," a line that drew applause from the Houston crowd.

A white nationalist killed 22 people and wounded about two dozen others in the Aug. 3 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.

 Following the violence, O'Rourke stepped away from the campaign trail for nearly two weeks to spend time supporting the community.

Biden started the exchange by calling O'Rourke by his first name, which O'Rourke accepted with a smile.

Harris also said, "Beto, God love you for standing so courageously in the face of that tragedy.“

Biden says "nobody should be in jail" for nonviolent crimes or for drug problems.

Biden is touting his criminal justice reform plan, which would exonerate drug possession offenders and put drug rehabilitation ahead of jail time for such offenders.

Biden is also touting his role in the 1994 crime bill, often used as a strike against him by his rivals, for its introduction of drug courts aimed specifically at minor drug offenses.

And when the debate turned to mass shootings, Biden said he defeated the National Rifle Association by leading the 25-year-old crime bill's ban on assault weapons.

Trump says more people are probably tuning into his speech in Baltimore than are watching Democratic presidential hopefuls on the debate stage in Texas.

Trump spoke Thursday to congressional Republicans attending an annual retreat in Baltimore.

Trump said people "should be watching the debate, but they're probably watching this." His speech was aired on CSPAN, while ABC and Univision aired the debate.

The joke drew chuckles from the friendly audience of GOP members of the House.

The candidates in Texas have mentioned him frequently, including on issues of racism and shootings. O'Rourke called Trump "a mortal threat" to people of color in the United States and accused him of inspiring the actions of the El Paso gunman who killed 22 people.

Harris is vocally defending her criminal justice record during Thursday's Democratic presidential debate in Houston.

The California senator has taken flak since beginning her campaign for what some activists have described as an insufficiently progressive record during her prosecutorial career, culminating with service as the state's attorney general. 

But Harris has since rolled out a detailed criminal justice reform proposal, including the elimination of federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders — a policy blamed for increasing mass incarceration.

Harris said on Thursday that, as she became a prosecutor, "I made a decision that if I was going to have the ability to reform the system, I would try to reform it from the inside."

She said she was "absolutely not" able to do enough at the time.

Some Democratic presidential candidates have called on their rivals to stop attacking one another as the debate over health care grew heated.

Ten candidates are meeting Thursday in Houston for the third presidential primary debate.

The night kicked off with sometimes-fiery exchanges about "Medicare for All," the health care overhaul backed by Sanders and Warren and some other candidates.

Biden says it's too expensive. He wants to build on "Obamacare" to expand coverage to those who want it.

Castro accused Biden of forgetting what he said moments earlier, Buttigieg interjected, saying, "This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable.“

Klobuchar agreed, saying, "A house divided cannot stand."

Biden and Sanders are sharply battling over "Medicare for All" at Thursday's Democratic presidential debate in Houston.

The former vice president is accusing Sanders of being less than candid about "how much it's going to cost the taxpayers" to shift the nation to single-payer health insurance, particularly union members who made concessions to obtain better health insurance under the current system.

Biden says, "For a socialist, you've got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do.“

When Sanders pushed back, invoking cancer treatment, Biden replied that "I know a lot about cancer — it's personal to me." Biden's son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015.

Biden suggested his 2020 rival Warren is not being candid about the costs of her plan for the federal government to provide health care to all Americans.

He said Thursday at the third Democratic debate that "This is about candor, honesty," suggesting Warren's plan to increase income taxes on wealthier Americans by 2% falls far short of the estimated $30 billion the plan would cost.

Biden says it's not a bad idea if you like it. But he says, "I don't like it.“

Warren is responding by saying people will pay premiums to the government instead of to health insurance companies, adding, "I've never actually met anyone who likes their insurance company."

O'Rourke claims the perpetrator of last month's mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, was "inspired to kill by our president.“

O'Rourke made the comment during his opening statement in the Democratic debate Thursday.

Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh replied on Twitter that O'Rourke is "as desperate as he can be.“

The shooter killed 22 people, many of them Latino, at a Walmart store on Aug. 3 and is believed to have written a manifesto expressing racist and anti-immigrant sentiments. The author of the manifesto insisted his opinions "predate Trump and his campaign for president.“

But the words echoed some of the views Trump has expressed on immigration, Democrats and the media.

Trump weighed in on the Democratic primary field hours before his would-be opponents face off on the debate stage in Houston.

Trump said Thursday that he thinks he'll face former Biden, Warren or Sanders next year. 

He says, "It's going to be one of those three.“

Trump says he's going to catch up on the Democratic debate once he returns from Baltimore, where he is traveling to address congressional Republicans on Thursday evening.

He says, "It's going to be very interesting. I'm going to have to watch it as a rerun."

Just hours before Thursday night's debate in Houston, Biden went up with a digital ad aimed at deflecting criticism of President Barack Obama's administration.

Biden is shown saying in footage from a campaign event that Obama "was a president our children could and did look up to." Biden says he was "proud to serve as his vice president, but never more proud than the day we passed health care."

Other Obama administration accomplishments appear on-screen, including "protected dreamers" and "led on marriage equality.“

After a debate earlier this summer in Detroit, Biden said he was "a little surprised" at the flak he took from fellow Democrats about Obama's legacy, pushing back against criticism of the Affordable Care Act and Obama-era immigration policy.

Some Democrats in early voting states like South Carolina, which holds the first primary vote in the South next year, have listed Biden's proximity to Obama as among their top reasons for supporting him.

The top Democratic presidential contenders were finally on one debate stage as Biden tries to solidify his early lead over Sanders and Warren.

Harris and Buttigieg looked to reclaim some lost momentum.

The ABC News debate had 10 candidates altogether and aired on a broadcast network with a post-Labor Day uptick in interest in the race. That could give candidates their largest audience yet as the campaigning heads into the fall.

It's also the first time Warren and Biden will appear on the same stage.

But the campaigns say that doesn't necessarily mean the three-hour debate will end up being a direct clash between the progressive Massachusetts senator and the more centrist former vice president.