In a feisty debate Thursday that led Democratic front-runners to stumble, Michael Bennet made a strong case against President Donald Trump on immigration while John Hickenlooper touted his progressive record, moments that helped the Colorado candidates survive the first major test of the 2020 primary race.
Bennet and Hickenlooper split from the pack on major issues, staking out a middle path that sets them apart from the expansive field of candidates. But neither managed to create a breakout moment in the two-hour televised debate in Miami, as both scrapped for attention and every second of airtime.
Bennet, the second-term U.S. senator, fielded more questions and spoke for about 8 minutes, while Hicknelooper, the state’s former governor, talked for about 4 minutes. The two were positioned on the far ends of the stage, opposite each other, and the candidates in the middle with early advantages in the polls received far more camera time.
Here’s a look at the key moments and big lines in the second of two Democratic debates that each featured 10 candidates:
Immigration takes center stage
The flow of migrants across the U.S. southern border — and the Trump administration’s response — emerged as one of the top policy debates for Colorado’s two presidential hopefuls.
Asked how he would respond to the border crisis on Day 1 of his administration, Hickenlooper hit a familiar refrain when he labeled the government’s practice of separating children from parents “kidnapping” and pledged to reform the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to look “at their job in a humanitarian way.”
“The first thing we have to do is recognize the humanitarian crisis on the border for what it is,” he said.
Bennet didn’t get a direct question on immigration, but pivoted to the topic when it was his turn to speak and after being asked a question on foreign policy. He invoked his mother and how she survived the Holocaust as a Polish Jew and came to America to restart her life.
“The president has turned the border of the United States into a symbol of nativist hostility … that the whole world is looking at, when what we should be represented by is the Statue of Liberty, which has brought my parents to this country to begin with,” he said in a moment that drew audience applause. “We need to make a change.”
Bennet and Hickenlooper raised their hands to say their health care plans would cover people living in the country illegally.
Hickenlooper also appeared to raise his hand in support of decriminalizing illegal border crossings, instead making it a civil offense. Bennet did not support such a policy.
Colorado’s candidates swing at front runners
Bennet and Hickenlooper managed to claim the spotlight at different moments by taking aim at the presumptive front-runners at center stage: Former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
The Colorado pair launched attacks at Sanders in their opening salvos, with Hickenlooper saying that Sanders’ embrace of socialist policies would help Republicans reelect Trump in 2020 and Bennet taking aim at his health care policies.
“I think that the bottom line is, if we don’t clearly define that we are not socialists, the Republicans are going to come at us every way they can and call us socialists,” Hickenlooper said.
Later in the debate, Bennet split from Sanders on health care and criticized his plan for a government-run system. “Where I disagree is on his solution of Medicare for all,” Bennet said, saying the plan would kick people off their respective employer’s plans.
“We need to get to universal health care,” Bennet added. “I believe the way to do that is by finishing the work we started with Obamacare and creating a public option that every family and every person in America can make a choice for their family about whether they want a public option.”
Sanders fired back in support of his plans, saying people could go to any doctor they wanted.
“You know, Mike, Medicare is the most popular health insurance program in the country,” Sanders said. “People don’t like their private insurance companies — they like their doctors and hospitals.”
Elsewhere in the debate, Bennet criticized then-President Barack Obama and Biden’s deal with Republicans, mainly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, on the “fiscal cliff” in 2013 that extended Republican tax cuts.
“The deal that he talked about with Mitch McConnell was a complete victory for the Tea Party,” Bennet said, referring to Biden. Bennet added: “We lost that economic argument.”
Hickenlooper went on the offensive against Buttigieg over his handling of a recent fatal police shooting in South Bend, pointing to his efforts as Denver mayor after a 2003 shooting to create more independent oversight and diversify the force.
“I think the real question that America should be asking is why, five years after Ferguson, every city doesn’t have this level of police accountability,” he said pointedly toward Buttigieg.
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Early jitters aside, Bennet finds his voice — while giving voice to others
In addition to immigration, Bennet really hit his stride talking about foreign policy and why America’s political system appears broken, raising his voice at times to make his points.
The latter is the topic of his new book and a campaign proposal released ahead of the debate that includes a lifetime ban on lawmakers lobbying Congress.
“We have to restore our democracy at home,” Bennet said. “The rest of the world is looking (to) us for leadership. We have a president who doesn’t believe in the rule of law, he doesn’t believe in freedom of the press, he doesn’t believe in an independent judiciary. He believes in the corruption that he’s brought to Washington, D.C.”
On foreign policy, Bennet identified Russia — not China — as America’s biggest national security “because of what they’ve done with our election.” And the first international relationship he believes needs repair is with European allies and any Latin American country “willing to have a conversation about how to deal with the refugee crisis.”
Finally, Bennet also talked about his prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment earlier this year when discussing health care policy.
At other points, Bennet played cheerleader to his rivals, name dropping them and tossing them kudos for their policy ideas.
He said he agreed with New York U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on her views about Washington being broken. He complimented California U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell on his response to a question about foreign policy. And twice he said he is in alignment with Sanders’ take on the economy.
“I agree completely with Bernie about what the fundamental challenge we’re facing as a country is, 40 years of no economic growth for 90 percent of the American people,” Bennet said.
Eric Sondermann, a Denver political analyst, posted on Twitter after the debate that Bennet positioned himself as a rising star, possibly as a potential vice president pick.
“If Michael Bennet had been in this race four months earlier, could he have been the Mayor Pete of this campaign?” Sondermann asked, referencing Bennet’s delayed entrance into the race after his cancer diagnosis. “The break-out-of-nowhere candidate based on raw skills and smarts?”
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Hickenlooper makes his case — again and again
Meanwhile, Hickenlooper stayed on message in his brief opportunities to speak, repeatedly touting his accomplishments leading the state and using his closing statement to hammer home his message that Democrats’ embracing of socialist policies is dangerous.
“You don’t need big government to do big things,” Hickenlooper said in his closing remarks. “I know that because I’m the one person up here who’s actually done the big progressive things everyone else is talking about. If we turn towards socialism, we run the risk of helping to reelect the worst president in American history.”
The governor repeatedly touted the booming Colorado economy — which fact-checkers believe is an overstatement — and environmental policies to curb methane emissions. He also touted his administration’s support for providing long-acting contraception to women in need, though he misstated the impact on the unintended teen pregnancy rate.
In addition, he emphasized that Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana under his watch — even though he opposed its passage at the ballot box. Some pot advocates have taken aim at Hickenlooper over his record on the drug, accusing him of rewriting his views.
However, Sondermann said that Hickenlooper didn’t speak nearly enough overall.
“Not nearly enough,” Sondermann tweeted.
The former governor also struggled with a question about climate change when pressed about his position that oil and gas companies should be part of crafting new policies.
Hickenlooper, who studied geology and worked for an energy company early in his career, repeatedly referred to himself as a scientist.
But his close relationship with the industry is a point of contention with some Democratic activists. Nevertheless, he held firm: “We can’t demonize every business.”