By Michael Hernandez
WASHINGTON (AA) - Democrats contenders for the White House on Thursday found themselves near-uniformly coming after former Vice President Joe Biden in the narrowest field yet vying in a single round of debates.
The top 10 polling Democrats clashed in Houston, Texas over a gamut of issues including gun control, immigration, and health care as some sought to break from the pack, and others sought to maintain their lead at the top.
But under attack from progressive senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Biden challenged his fellow candidates to be "honest" about the costs their health care proposals would incur, which he pegged at $30 trillion annually.
"I think we should have a debate on health care. I know that the senator says she's for Bernie. I'm for Barack," Biden said, referring to Warren's support for Sanders' "Medicare for All" plan and alluding to his own experience under Obama helping to craft the Affordable Care Act, which U.S. President Donald Trump has taken successive steps to undercut while in office.
"I think Obamacare worked," Biden said, "we add to it, replace everything that's been cut, add a public option."
Sanders' plan, unlike the act, would see private insurers eliminated completely, a sticking point not just for Biden, but for other moderate Democrats as well.
"Maybe you've run in to people who love their premiums," Sanders said, sarcastically referring to the amount of money individuals pay for their private insurance policies. "I haven't."
Sanders insisted his "Medicare for All" plan would save costs for the average American in the long-run, because "Americans don't want to pay twice as much as other countries."
"Every study done shows that 'Medicare for All' is the most cost effective approach to providing health care to every man, woman and child in this county. I, who wrote the damn bill, if I may say so, intend to eliminate all out of pocket expenses" he said.
The three candidates constitute the top three polling individuals among Thursday's field, all but ensuring the fiery showdown early on in the night's proceedings.
But it was perhaps Julian Castro, who served as Housing and Urban Development secretary under Obama, who most vociferously came after the vice president he served under during the debate's back-and-forths.
"Of course, I also worked for President Obama, Vice President Biden, and I know that it leaves 10 million people uncovered," he said before launching into a stern broadside against Biden, appearing to allude to concerns over Biden's age and questions about whether it affects his mental fitness to hold America's highest office.
If elected, Biden would be the oldest U.S. president to enter office at 76, and it was Castro who said Biden had forgotten a key detail of his health care plan during the course of the night.
"You just said two minutes ago that they would have to buy in," Castro charged. "Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?"
"I'm fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama and you're not," he said before Biden quickly retorted, "That would be a surprise to him."
As the debate turned to gun control, former congressman Beto O'Rourke drew accolades when he boldly vowed to ban assault weapon-style automatic rifles.
"If it is a weapon that was designed to kill people on a battlefield. If the high-impact, high-velocity round shreds everything inside of your body because it was designed to do that so that you would bleed to death on a battlefield, and not be able to get up and kill one of our soldiers, when we see that being used against children and in Odessa," O'Rourke said, "Hell yes we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47."
"We’re not going to allow it to be used against fellow Americans anymore," he said as thunderous applause erupted in the Texas Southern University auditorium.
After taking the bold stance, O'Rourke, who hails from El Paso, Texas, the southern border town where a gunman opened fire at a Wal-Mart store with an AK-style assault rifle killing 22 victims, directly heaped blame on Trump for the tragedy that targeted Latinos.
"In the face of this act of terror that was directed at our community in large part by the president of the United States that killed 22 people, and injured many more, we were not defeated by that nor were we defined by that," he said in speaking to his city's resilience in the face of tragedy.
"We have a white supremacist in the White House, and he poses a mortal threat to people of color all across this country," he said.
California Senator Kamala Harris also faulted Trump for the tragedy, saying that when she was in El Paso people asked her “do you think Trump is responsible for what happened?” And I said, “Well, look, obviously he didn't pull the trigger, but he's certainly been tweeting out the ammunition.”
Democrats are set to square off next in October when the field may again be split into two nights to accommodate a wider group allotted by the requirements.