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Wake Up To Politics - September 13, 2019

I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Friday, September 13, 2019. 53 days until Election Day 2019. 143 days until the 2020 Iowa caucuses. 417 days until Election Day 2020. Have comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at gabe@wakeuptopolitics.com.

Biden weathers attacks from Democratic rivals at third primary debate

For just under three hours on Thursday, the top 10 candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination met for the third debate of the 2020 primary cycle, attempting to distinguish themselves from each other on a range of issues.

The debate, which took place in Houston and was hosted by ABC News, began with a fierce exchange about health care between the three leading candidates in the race: former Vice President Joe Biden, the frontrunner in most polls, and the two progressive senators who flanked him on stage, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

A much more combative Biden appeared on Thursday than at the previous debates, as he went on the offensive criticizing Sanders and Warren for their support of Medicare for All, a proposal that would replace existing private health insurance plans and cover all Americans through a government-run program. "How are we going to pay for it?" the centrist former VP asked, asserting that his progressive rivals would have to increase taxes to pay for such a program. "It's not a bad idea, if you like it. I don't like it," he said.

Sanders mounted an aggressive defense of his signature policy. "Every study shows that Medicare for All is the most cost-effective approach to providing health care to every man, woman, and child in this country," he said. "I, who wrote the damn bill, if I may say so, intend to eliminate all out-of-pocket expenses, all deductibles, all co-payments."

Biden, meanwhile, explained that he supports making improvements to the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, rather than replace it outright. "The senator says she's for Bernie," he said, referring to Warren, "well, I'm for Barack. I think the Obamacare worked."

But it was not Warren, who has been rising in the polls in recent weeks, who challenged Biden the most on Thursday night, in their first time facing off on a debate stage. (The Massachusetts progressive stayed silent for large stretches of the night, remaining above the fray and emerging largely unscathed.) Instead, it was his former Obama Cabinet colleague — ex-HUD Secretary Julián Castro, who stood on the far end of the stage as the lowest-polling candidate invited — who attacked Biden most aggressively.

"Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?" Castro said to Biden in the midst of the health care exchange, accusing the former VP of contradicting himself on the requirement for uninsured Americans to buy in to his health care plan, laying bare questions about age and memory that have haunted Biden since entering the race.

However, in this case, it was Castro who misremembered what had been said: Biden had actually said minutes earlier that under his plan, "anyone who can't afford [private insurance] gets automatically enrolled in the Medicare-type option we have." Biden had also said that "you automatically can buy into" the plan, but he was referring to people who had lost insurance coverage after becoming unemployed, not all uninsured people as Castro suggested.

Even as Biden refuted the claim, Castro kept on swinging. "I'm fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you're not," he declared.

"That'll be a surprise to him," Biden shot back.

The other candidates on the stage quickly reproached Castro for the personal nature of his attack on Biden. "Come on, guys," entrepreneur Andrew Yang said. "This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable," Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, added. "This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington, [politicians] scoring points against each other, poking at each other."

"Yeah, that's called the Democratic primary election, Pete," Castro replied. "That's called an election."

In all, Biden mostly held his own, even as a number of his fellow candidates trained their ire against him. Sanders used the topic of the Iraq War to attempt to distinguish himself from the frontrunner, calling the former VP's vote in favor of the war "one of the big differences between you and me." California Sen. Kamala Harris, who mostly directed scripted zingers at President Donald Trump through the night, traded barbs with Biden over gun control. When he said her plan to take executive action to ban assault weapons was unconstitutional, Harris smiled and referenced the Obama-Biden ticket's 2008 campaign slogan: "Hey Joe, instead of saying, 'No we can't,' let's say 'yes we can."

"We've got a constitution," he deadpanned in response.

While none of his rivals were able to land damaging blows on him (like Harris did in an exchange on his past opposition to busing in the first debate), Biden didn't turn out an entirely even performance, faltering at times as he delivered some rambling responses. In one, an answer to a question about slavery — focusing on his 1975 comment, "I'll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago" — devolved into a call for impoverished parents to use a largely-defunct technology to boost their children's educations. "Make sure you have the record player on at night," he said, sparking confusion among many viewers and the other candidates.

Many analysts agreed that the three-hour debate left the central dynamics of the Democratic primary race largely unchanged. For many of the lower-polling candidates on the stage, it was potentially their last opportunity to grab eyeballs and momentum in the race. None did so, although former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke did catch attention with his comments on gun control ("Hell yes, we're gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47"), as did Buttigieg by telling his coming-out story ("I was not interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer") and Yang by outlining a legally-dubious promise to randomly select 10 families and give them $1,000 a month for the next year as a preview of his universal basic income program.

All ten candidates who were on stage Thursday night, plus billionaire Tom Steyer, have already qualified for the next debate, which will take place in Ohio on October 15 and 16.

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Today at the White House

--- At 11:45 a.m., President Trump receives his daily intelligence briefing. At 3:30 p.m., he meets with Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

--- At 12:05 p.m., Vice President Mike Pence delivers remarks at the House Republican Conference retreat in Baltimore, Maryland.

Today in Congress

--- Neither house of Congress is in session today.

Today on the trail

--- Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) visits Iowa, touring a biorefinery in West Burlington with former Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-IA) and hosting a meet and greet in Keokuk.

--- Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) joins a "Caucus for Kids" Facebook Live event hosted by Every Child Matters in Iowa in Des Moines, Iowa.

--- Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) holds a town hall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

--- Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) meets with the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence in Concord, New Hampshire.

--- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) makes a swing through Nevada, holding a town hall in Carson City and a rally in Reno.

--- Former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer campaigns in Iowa, holding a coffee with local activists in Clinton and attending a house party in Maquoketa.

*All times Eastern