Former US vice-president Joe Biden came under attack from several Democratic presidential contenders on Thursday as the party held its third debate in the race to select a challenger to Donald Trump in 2020.
On issues ranging from healthcare and immigration to racism and climate change, Mr Biden faced assaults from Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who trails him in the polls, and Julián Castro, the former Obama administration cabinet secretary who had the lowest poll numbers of the 10 Democrats on stage in Houston.
Mr Castro accused Mr Biden of touting his association with Barack Obama when convenient, and distancing himself from the former president when faced with questions about their eight-year tenure in the White House.
“Every time something good about Barack Obama comes up, he says, ‘Oh I was there, I was there’ . . . and then every time somebody questions part of the administration that we were both part of he says, ‘Well that was the president’,” Mr Castro said. “He wants to take credit for Obama’s work but not have to answer to any questions.”
Ahead of the debate, which featured only 10 of the 20 Democratic candidates, Mr Biden released a video that highlighted his partnership with the former president — repeating a ploy that he has used on the campaign trail in an effort to capitalise on the high level of support that Mr Obama retains.
Early in the debate, Mr Biden tried to use his success with Mr Obama in passing the Obamacare healthcare law to attack Mr Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator vying neck and neck with the Vermont senator in the polls.
The two senators have similar plans for healthcare that would result in Americans losing private healthcare insurance and move to a public system that offers universal coverage.
Asked whether the pair were pushing the Democratic party too far to the left, Mr Biden responded: “That will be for the voters to decide that question . . . I think we should have a debate on healthcare. I know that the senator says she’s for Bernie, well, I’m for Barack. I think Obamacare worked.”
Despite landing some good lines, Mr Biden frequently found himself on the defensive, and at times muddled his answers, highlighting concerns among some Democrats about the 76-year-old’s mental sharpness. At one point, Mr Castro erroneously tried to suggest that Mr Biden was unable to remember his own argument.
“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?,” Mr Castro said, in an attack that Rahm Emanuel, a former chief of staff to Mr Obama known for his abrasive style, called “mean”.
The third debate marked the first time Mr Biden and Ms Warren faced off on the same stage. But there were few fireworks between the pair, even as Ms Warren has seen her support rise in the polls.
According to an average of recent polls compiled by Real Clear Politics, Mr Biden leads with 27 per cent, ahead of Mr Sanders and Ms Warren who are hovering at about 17 per cent. Mr Biden has seen his earlier lead shrink, partly as voters learn more about the other candidates who do not have the same name recognition he enjoys.
In an exchange about gun violence, the candidates largely agreed on the need for more safety measures. Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from El Paso where a mass shooting left 22 people dead last month, repeated his calls for an assault weapon ban, saying: “Hell yes, we’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
Kamala Harris, the California senator who launched a strong attack on Mr Biden over race in the first debate, accused the former vice-president of being a defeatist for saying that it was unconstitutional to use an executive order to force owners to sell the kind of semi-automatic weapons frequently used in mass shootings to the government.
Asked if Mr Biden was right, Ms Harris said with a smile: “Hey Joe, instead of saying that we can’t, let’s say, ‘Yes we can’.” The rebuke appeared to be a reference to the “Yes we can” slogan that defined Mr Obama’s 2008 campaign.
While Mr Sanders frequently distanced himself from Mr Biden and hit the former vice-president over everything from his support for the Iraq war to his trade policy, there were some light moments during the two-and-a-half-hour debate.
Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator who is bald, slammed Mr Trump for slapping tariffs on allies such as Canada instead of joining forces to tackle trade problems with China. “I’m the only person on the stage that finds [Canadian prime minister Justin] Trudeau’s hair very menacing, but they are not a national security threat.”
Ms Harris sparked laughter when she compared Mr Trump and his approach on trade to the Wizard of Oz. “You know when you pull back the curtain, it’s a really small dude,” she said. It was unclear if she was referring to sexually charged jokes about Mr Trump during the 2016 presidential race but the remark prompted George Stephanopoulos, the 5 foot-5-inch moderator, to say: “OK, I’m not even going to take the bait senator.”
Overall, the debate was less fiery than the first two rounds, and did not appear to provide any of the kind of breakout moments that can change the dynamic of a political race.
“There were some memorable moments, but mainly this debate was a snoozer,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia politics professor. “Nothing wrong with that, and better than vicious attacks that leave wounds.”