A festering feud between Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg erupted in a high-stakes debate that tested the strength of the Democratic Party’s shrinking pool of presidential contenders, six weeks before primary voting begins.
Mr Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has emerged as an unlikely presidential power player, gaining ground with a centrist message.
Ms Warren, the progressive Massachusetts senator, attacked his fundraising practices, while Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, who is competing with Mr Buttigieg for moderate voters, challenged his limited governing experience.
The debate came a day after a contentious vote to impeach President Donald Trump, which showed how polarised the nation is over his presidency.
With the Republican-controlled Senate likely to acquit him, the stakes are high for Democrats to select a challenger who can defeat Mr Trump in November.
The forum highlighted the choice Democrats will have to make between progressive and moderate, older and younger, men and women, and the issues that will sway the small but critical segment of voters who will determine the election.
The candidates sharply disagreed about the role of money in politics, the value and meaning of experience and the direction of the American health care system.
In the most pointed exchange, Ms Warren zeroed in on Mr Buttigieg’s recent private meeting with wealthy donors inside a California “wine cave”.
“Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” she said.
Mr Buttigieg, who has surged into the top tier of the Democratic Party’s 2020 primary in part because of his fundraising success, did not back down.
“We need to defeat Donald Trump,” he responded, noting that the president’s re-election campaign has already accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars. “We shouldn’t try to do it with one hand tied behind our back.”
The focus on Mr Buttigieg at the Los Angeles debate highlighted his strength in the Democratic Party’s turbulent primary contest 46 days before voting begins, with polls showing him at or near the lead in the first caucus. The confrontation also raised broader concerns about the direction of the race: Democrats are not close to unifying behind a message or messenger in their quest to deny Mr Trump a second term.
One side, led by Ms Warren and Bernie Sanders, is demanding transformational change to the US economy and political system. The other side, led by former vice president Joe Biden, Mr Buttigieg and Ms Klobuchar, prefers a more cautious return to normality after Mr Trump’s turbulent reign.
Mr Biden, having seemingly regained his footing as the establishment favourite in the crowded contest, sidestepped any missteps or damaging attacks, but in the debate’s final moments, he engaged in a heated exchange with Mr Sanders over health care.
Mr Sanders has proposed a “Medicare for All” single-payer system, which Mr Biden dismissed as “unrealistic”. He pushed a plan that he says would build on Obamacare, but Mr Sanders argued that Mr Biden would just be keeping the status quo.
The next debate is scheduled for January 14, 20 days before voting begins in the first caucus in Iowa.