Expert: Sanders, Warren continue streak as primary leaders

Follow our team here tonight and Wednesday as we live blog the Democratic debate at the Fox Theatre

Coverage from the Democratic debate at the Fox Theatre in Detroit:

Levin praises Warren's debate performance

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, who endorsed U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren Tuesday, said he felt “fantastic” about how she performed in Tuesday's debate as he praised her as a candidate who helps working people “and not corporations.”

“I think Elizabeth Warren showed tonight not only that she can win the primary in Michigan but she can win the general election,” said Levin, D-Bloomfield Township. “She was so clearly there for working people. She’s so much clearer on trade than other candidates."

Levin said he was surprised about the lack of topics about Michigan in the debate. “We had talked about it. She was ready for it,” he said. “Where was the question about PFAS and contamination? Where was the question about Great Lakes water quality and how this president has proposed three times in a row to cut the Great Lakes Restoration Initiatives funding by 90 percent?” 

Expert: Sanders, Warren continue streak as primary leaders

The debate Tuesday cemented the fortunes of some front runners, while also giving some lower-tier candidates moments in the sun, said University of Michigan Director of Debate Aaron Kall. 

Wednesday's showing is likely to be the more compelling of the two nights, Kall said, noting the debate stage will include front runners and first debate rivals former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California. 

But Vermont Sen. Bernie and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren led the pack of Tuesday’s candidates, monopolizing speaking time and salient content while on stage, Kall said. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg made good use of his military experience in arguing his relevance but perhaps alluded to his young age too often.

Former Congressman John Delaney of Maryland with his frequent attacks on Warren and Sanders’ “fairy tale economics,” made more of a name for himself than he has before, but it likely won’t be enough to qualify him for the next debate, Kall said.

“He benefited by being willing to attack Sanders and Warren,“ Kall said. “When you’ve got your shot, you’ve got to take it because there’s no time like the present.”

The end of Night One

At the end of the grueling two-and-a-half-hour debate, the first half of Democratic candidates in Detroit echoed warnings about the divided state of the country under President Donald Trump and promised they would be the solution needed to turn the country around. 

“Donald Trump is the symptom of a disease and the disease is divisiveness,” said Delaney, before promising the vision and leadership to bring about real change in health care, infrastructure and the economy. 

“We have to do it with real solutions, not impossible promises,” he reiterated.

From left, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg talk after the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates in Detroit.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas cited his history of bringing people together at all levels of community and government in making his pitch to become the nation’s leader.

“We have a president who uses fear to drive us further apart,” he said. 

Warren promised to bring about real change should she earn America’s vote in 2020. 

“Every budget, every policy we talk about is about who’s going to get opportunity,” said Warren, noting the options often come down to big business or the American people, a model she said is beaten “by being the party of big structural change.”

Sanders called for “a mass-political movement” to take on the fossil fuel industry, big pharma and “the greed and corruption of the ruling class of this country.”

Global relations and the presence in Afghanistan

On the question of should the United States be the policeman of the world, Sanders was asked if he was the same as Trump since they both agreed on the topic. That got Sanders steamed.

“Trump is a pathological liar. I tell the truth,” Sanders said to applause. He added that the U.S. has spent far too much on war.

“What we need is a foreign policy that focuses on diplomacy, ending conflicts by people sitting at a table not by killing each other,” Sanders said. As president, he said he would go to the United Nations to help countries come together and solve problems peacefully.

Buttigieg, a military veteran, said he thought he “was turning out out the lights” when he left Afghanistan. But years later the U.S. is getting close to a juncture in which casualties in Afghanistan will involve soldiers who weren’t born prior to 9/11.

“We will withdraw,” he said. “We have to.”

Candidates war over the trade war

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio acknowledged that Trump “was on to something” regarding China’s unfair trade policies, but he said the way to change that relationship is to beat China through competition and with a long-term plan. 

“I would have to re-evaluate” the tariffs, Ryan said. “I think some of them are effective, but he’s bungled it all.”

Warren said the country’s current trade policies were written by multinational companies with no loyalties to the country. Those companies would up and move from the U.S. if the price was right, she said. 

“Right now, the whole game is working for the big multinationals,” Warren said. “It’s just not working for the people of the United States.” 

Sanders agreed and suggested one solution was to cut off the companies that “line up at the federal trough” for federal contracts. 

O’Rourke of Texas cautioned against entering a trade war devoid of friends and allies, while former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper invoked history in examining the issue of trade wars and tariffs. 

“There is not a single example in history where a trade war had a winner,” Hickenlooper said.

Racism 'is alive and well'

The topic of racism got spirited applause and reaction from the debate crowd, and each candidate asked jumped on the subject.

O’Rourke said racism “is alive and well in every aspect of the economy and the country today.” He promised to sign a new voting rights act and support reparations for African Americans “so we can have the national conversation that we have waited too long in this country to have.”

Spiritual author Marianne Williamson of Iowa, a native of Michigan, said there doesn’t need to be a study of reparations and wants at least $500 billion dollars in financial assistance for those who have a legacy of slavery in their backgrounds.

The reparations are a “payment of a debt that is owed,” she said. “It is time for us to simply realize that this country will not heal.”

How to prevent another Flint water crisis?

When asked how she would prevent another Flint water crisis, Sen. Anne Klobuchar of Minnesota noted Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s successful 2018 campaign on the slogan “fix the damn roads.” 

She said she would place new money into green infrastructure to address the issues plaguing cities across the U.S. 

“I would put a trillion dollars into this,” Klobuchar said. 

Williamson said Flint is just the tip of the iceberg, noting issues in other states and Trump’s actions that “gutted the Clean Water Act.”

“I lived in Grosse Pointe,” Williamson said. “What happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe.

“It’s bigger than Flint. It’s all over this country. In particular, people of color. In particular, people who can’t fight back.”

Candidates tackle environment, climate change

The environment and climate change took over the debate quickly with respectful sparring matches with Sanders encouraging a fight with the fossil fuel industry.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said climate change isn’t being talked about by Republicans but identified that it should be.

“All of us agree that we have to address climate change,” he said. “The Republicans won’t even acknowledge that climate change is real.” And that mindset, he said, is the result of the “influence of money.”

“Let’s have the scientists drive this,” Bullock said. “I’m not talking about plans that are written for press releases that will go nowhere else if we can’t get a Republican to” admit that the climate is changing.

Sanders said the Green New Deal is “a bold idea,” and “we can create millions of good-paying jobs.” 

O’Rourke said “we won’t meet that challenge with half-steps and half-measures for only half the country.” 

“The people of Detroit, and those that I listened to in Flint last week, they want the challenge, they want those jobs, they want to create a future for this country,” he said.

Are Democrats moving too far left?

When questioned about the effect of Sanders has had on pushing the party further left, some Democratic candidates said that push will have a negative effect in 2020. 

Noting the topics discussed so far — from decriminalized border crossing to health care plans that force people off their private insurance plans — Ryan implied the ideas were disconnected from the reality of most Americans. 

“We’ve got to talk about the working class issues,” Ryan said. 

Bullock, who won his seat in Montana the same year Trump took the state, said Americans only want a “fair shot.”

“This isn’t a choice between the left and center,” he said. 

Delaney also warned against “fairy tale economics,” noting Detroit’s turnaround through practical partnerships. 

“This city is turning around because the government and private sector are working well together,” he said. 

Warren pushed back on Delaney’s “fairy tale economics” taunt, questioning why someone would run for president only to speak about what can’t be done and what shouldn’t be fought for. 

“There is a lot at stake and people are scared,” Warren said. “But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in. … Democrats win when we figure out what is right, and we get out there and fight for it.”

Ten Democratic presidential candidates take the stage for the first of two primary debates hosted by CNN Tuesday in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. From left, Marianne Williamson, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

Gun violence remains pressing problem

On stopping gun violence, Buttigieg said the worst part of being mayor is “consoling grieving parents." 

“What we’re doing hasn’t worked because we haven’t had a system in Washington capable of delivering what the American people have told us they want," Buttigieg said. "Eighty percent of Republicans have told us they want universal background checks.”

After losing over 40,000 people to gun violence, O’Rourke said “no other country comes even close to (us). We know what all the solutions are but nothing has changed. It is because in this country money buys influence, access and increasing outcomes.”

Sanders was the first to bring up the National Rifle Association when asked about solving gun violence: “We have to have the guts to take on the NRA.”

Candidates debate decriminalization of border crossing

Sanders, who has advocated for free health care and free college for undocumented immigrants, said the country must stop the president from “demonizing that group of people."

“If a mother and child walk thousands of miles on a dangerous path, in my view they are not criminals,” Sanders said. 

Ryan and Bullock said the answer to the border crisis and the separation of families at the border, is not the fact that crossing the border is criminal but the president with the authority to decide how to enforce those laws. Both said free health care and free college would incentivize undocumented entry into the U.S. 

The challenge is that Donald Trump is president, Bullock said, and “a sane immigration system needs a sane leader.”

Health care a top issue

Sanders lamented over the state of health care in the United States, an issue that was swept up in the next question from moderators who quizzed candidates on their stances on Medicare for All. 

"Let’s be clear what this debate is about," said Sanders, who has advocated for such a system. "Nobody can defend the dysfunctionality of the current system."

Hickenlooper argued against abruptly transitioning everyone to a public health care option, noting Americans are used to having options. 

"It would be an evolution, not a revolution," he said. 

Warren pushed back on Hickenlooper's gradual transition to a public health care option. 

"We have tried this experiment with our insurance system," but insurance companies have "sucked billions of dollars" out of the system, she said. 

Taking on Trump

Dressed in varying shades of red and blue, most candidates of the 10 candidates emphasized the need to beat Trump with grounded, real solutions that would appeal to independents. 

Bullock was the first out of the gate with his introductory statement, noting that he would beat Trump “not by compromising my values but by getting stuff done.”

Delaney took a swipe at Sanders and Warren’s more progressive ideas and promised real solutions, not “impossible promises that will turn off independent voters and get Trump re-elected” 

Buttigieg stressed the country is in crisis politically and environmentally, a crisis that opened a pathway to the White House in 2016 for Trump. 

“Ask yourself why someone like Donald Trump even gets within cheating distance of being president?”

Warren argued Trump is part of a corrupt system that can only be solved if the Democratic party becomes one of “big structural change.”

Hickenlooper stopped short of saying Sanders was too extreme to beat Trump but lambasted his policies.

“Donald Trump is malpractice personified,” said Hickenlooper, adding the Dems need to be focused on the failures of the president.

Klobuchar was asked if candidates were making promises just to get elected but she punted and redirected to Trump.

“Everyone wants to get elected,” she said.

But with a president telling “10,000  lies, that we’d better be very straight forward with the American people.

"And no, do I think we are going to vote for a plan that takes half of America off of their current insurance in four years? No, I don’t think we’re going to do that. It’s a bad way to get what we all want to see which is lower costs for health care.”

Michigan in play on path to presidency

Shortly before the 10 candidates took the stage, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reminded the debate crowd of the pivotal role Michigan played in President Donald Trump's 2016 victory and the potential it has to play in the 2020 election. 

"The world now knows that the path to the presidency goes through the Great Lakes state, the great state of Michigan," Whitmer said. 

State Democratic party chairwoman Lavora Barnes echoed Whitmer's warning while welcoming candidates "to a state that has shown us how to go from blue to red and back again."

"Michigan Democrats are paying attention, they're engaged and they're ready to get rid of Donald Trump," Barnes said. 

People attending the debate were lined up outside the Fox Theatre hours before the 8 p.m. start of the debates as were state leaders, Democratic operatives and protesters.

'Battle Royale'

Adolph Mongo, a longtime Detroit political consultant who was on his way into the Fox Theatre, said he expects a “battle royale” between the lesser-known candidates and leading candidates in Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

“Somebody going to get knocked out tonight,” said Mongo, who once worked for the late Detroit Mayor Coleman Young and was known for his fist-first campaigning philosophy. “This is the most important debate. Because these are the folks nobody’s looking at. Somebody’s got to throw some knockout punches here.”

Andrew Gillum, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Florida who narrowly lost in 2018, said Sanders and Warren will likely be targets of the other Democrats.

“If you’re one of the lesser-known candidates at this point, this may be a make or break debate of whether or not your campaign will continue,” Gillum said. "The thresholds change for the third debate. In order to break through, to me it’s pretty obvious: You’ve got to use Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as a foil if you are a more moderate candidate to make the case as to why you’re a more salable option than the two of them on the left.”

Gillum, the mayor of Jacksonville who is in Detroit as a political analyst on CNN, said he doesn’t “expect Warren to go after Sanders and I don’t expect Sanders to go after Warren. I don’t think they benefit from that.”

Retired NBA star Charles Barkley seen at the 2020 Democratic presidential debates at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

Barkley weighs in

NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, who is now a basketball analyst on TNT,  flew in to Detroit to watch the debate and provided a little pre-game commentary to reporters in the media room.

His early favorites for the Democratic nomination are former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, but he’s not sure either will gain traction. Barkely said he was excited for the debate but expressed frustration with the political process.

“I think all politicians take black folks for granted,” he said. “They talk to the black folks every four years and that’s about it. How they’re going to make our lives better, and they do nothing about it.”

Barkley argued that both parties have not done enough to spur economic opportunity for black voters, especially the Democratic Party “because every black person I know has always voted Democratic, and with the exception of a few guys who can play sports, all these people still poor.”

Asked if he thinks Republican President Donald Trump is a racist, the usually loquacious analyst chose his words carefully but accused the president of a flagrant foul.

“I’m a little leery of calling people racist,” Barkley said. “He said some things that can be construed as racist. Some things he said are very wrong and flagrant.”

Doctor, whistleblower wants Flint fix

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician who helped blow open the Flint water crisis, said as she headed into the debate that she wants to hear what the candidates say about “where we are as a nation and practical solutions to where we need to be going.”

“As a pediatrician, as an immigrant, as a mom, there’s a lot of things that are concerning in terms of the state of our nation,” she said. “If you look at what children need, we’re not delivering. Locally in Flint, we need long-term resources for our long-term recovery.”

Trump said before he was elected he’d fix Flint, but “we’re waiting to see that,” she said, adding she hopes the candidates address the Flint situation.

Flint residents have “understandably lost trust in government and those who work for government. But this is on top of decades of betrayal, decades of disinvestment, unemployment, racism, neglect.”

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician who helped blow open the Flint water crisis, ahead of the Democratic debate in Detroit Tuesday night.

Hanna-Attisha wouldn’t name a favorite.

“I’m just here to listen and to learn and to kind of feel the pulse,” she said.

Fadwa Hammoud, the state solicitor general in charge of prosecuting the Flint water crisis cases, said she is looking forward to the candidates discussing the issues as she walked into the debate, and Flint.

“I hope it’s hard to make a decision tonight, honestly,” Hammoud said of the candidates. “I want to see good candidates front and center, and I think that the Democratic party has a lot to unite over. I think we have some great candidates. I’d take any of them over what we have in the White House right now.”

Hammoud said that now people are paying closer attention to “things like debates” given the climate in Washington. “Now people are more politically involved and motivated and they are paying attention to days like today,” she said.

“I hope every single one of these candidates, that when they come to Michigan, that they have Flint at the front and center in their heart when they talk about issues and failure of government. Flint is the perfect example.”

Buttigieg's husband opines

Chasten Buttigieg, a Traverse City native who is married to candidate Pete Buttigieg, took to social media to voice his expectations for the first night of Democratic debates. 

"As a native Michigander I will be thoroughly disappointed if there is not a portion of the debate tonight that asks candidates to pronounce Mackinac and show where it is using Michigan hand maps," Chasten wrote.

U.S. Sens. Sanders of Vermont and Warren of Massachusetts headline the first of two nights two-hour debates televised by CNN. The 8-10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday forums at the Fox Theatre in Detroit will be moderated by CNN's Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Jake Tapper.

Despite additional rules from CNN limiting interruptions, candidates are expected to come out swinging both nights to make up for any lost ground during the first round of debates in Miami in June.

Filling out Tuesday's line-up are Buttigieg; U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; former and current U.S. Reps. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, John Delaney of Maryland and Tim Ryan of Ohio; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; and spiritual author Marianne Williamson of Iowa.

The second night of debates Wednesday will include former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York; U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii; Castro; businessman Andrew Yang; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Anti-abortion protesters, environmentalists demanding a Green New Deal, and President Donald Trump supporters gathered outside the barricades that blocked off a segment of Woodward Avenue outside the debate venue.  Across from the theater, campaign posters covered the metal barricade dividing Woodward from the CNN stage constructed in front of Comerica Park.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, center, crosses Woodward by Comerica Park for the debates at the Fox Theatre.

State leaders also gathered in Detroit for the debate, before which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to give opening remarks. Whitmer has said she wants candidates to address issues affecting the average Midwest voter, such as infrastructure, job creation and education

Attorney General Dana Nessel echoed Whitmer's plea ahead of the debate, noting high-impact, local environmental issues such as the welfare of the Great Lakes, the threat of a potential Line 5 oil spill in the Straits of Mackinac and ubiquitous chemical contamination in water supplies. 

"I've been very, very disappointed in the Trump administration, who seemingly lacks the capacity to understand the significance of the Great Lakes, not just to the state of Michigan, not just to the Great Lakes compact states, but really to all of us in the United States," Nessel said. 

The Plymouth Democrat will attend the debate with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and Democratic activists who were instrumental during her campaign last year. 

Sanders, a democrat and Warren are friends who have battled for progressive voters on issues such as Medicare for All universal health coverage. Buttigieg and O'Rourke are younger candidates known for their charisma who have competed newer voters. 

Political analysts have said Biden, Harris, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg made some of the most lasting impressions in Miami, but Castro and Booker also gained some momentum in June’s first match.

Satirist Stoney Burke of Ogemaw County near West Branch came down to get "into the vibe" of the event.  "Probably Elizabeth (Warren) is going to steal the progressive ring from Bernie (Sanders), he said. "She might be a candidate but I'm not sure if the America people will accept her. I would.  I wouldn't Bernie."

Many candidates made early stops in Detroit and other parts of Michigan in the past week when they participated in a presidential forum at the NAACP annual convention in downtown Detroit. Even before the convention, a smattering of candidates made stops in the Metro Detroit, Flint and Lansing areas.

Several candidates, Michigan leaders and Democratic activist groups will make appearances in Detroit over the next few days as the city plays host to a pivotal match in the Democratic primary.

Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and other Democratic leaders are expected to gather for pre-debate events both nights at a Detroit union hall. The Michigan Democratic Party has invited presidential candidates to speak at the “Doubleheader in the D.”

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