Impeachment hearings play lead role on Democratic debate stage

The 10 Democratic presidential candidates took the stage ahead of Wednesday night’s debate inside the Oprah Winfrey Soundstage at Tyler Perry Studios in southwest Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

The 10 Democratic presidential candidates took the stage ahead of Wednesday night’s debate inside the Oprah Winfrey Soundstage at Tyler Perry Studios in southwest Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

The blockbuster impeachment hearings Wednesday in Washington served as a somber backdrop to the Democratic debate in Atlanta, forcing the 10 candidates who shared the stage at Tyler Perry Studios to balance their searing criticism of President Donald Trump with mounting pressure to stand out.

Several of the contenders called for a sense of unity as the nation’s divide plays out in the impeachment proceedings. Others challenged their rivals to move beyond an anti-Trump message, even as the moderators peppered them with questions about his policies.

With the explosive testimony of Ambassador Gordon Sondland still in mind — he said Trump engaged in a “quid pro quo” by trading political favors with Ukraine’s president — each of the candidates navigated the fight over impeachment by presenting his or her own campaign agenda.

“The president broke the law again and again and again,” said U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was echoed by other candidates who called Trump “corrupt” and said no less than democracy was at stake with the proceedings.

But, just as quickly, some Democrats raised concerns that the ceaseless attention devoted to impeachment drowns out their own messaging.

“We cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump,” U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders said. “Because if we are, you know what? We’re going to lose the election.”

The scene at the $250 million studio complex, where contenders met at a soundstage named for Oprah Winfrey, helped put the challenge they face in context.

The event wasn’t the dominant story most of the day for debate co-host MSNBC, which aired the testimony — instead of the typical pre-debate buildup – on flat-screen TVs until an hour before the candidates took the stage.

Attempting to break through the clutter over the issue, some candidates tried to present themselves as a uniter-in-chief in the making.

“The next president, whoever they are, is going to have to be someone who can heal and bring this nation together,” U.S. Sen. Cory Booker said.

There was little appetite, too, to indulge in a question about whether Trump should face criminal charges if he’s removed from office. Former Vice President Joe Biden said he would steer clear of dictating terms to an independent judiciary.

“Follow the law,” he said. “Let the Justice Department make the judgment about whether someone should be prosecuted. Period.”

11/20/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- (L to R) Senator Cory Booker, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, and Senator Amy Klobuchar all try to get the attention of the moderators, during the MSNBC/The Washington Post Democratic Presidential debate inside the Oprah Winfrey Soundstage at Tyler Perry Studios, Monday, November 20, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Georgia’s moment

It was a showcase moment for state Democrats, who trumpeted to the reporters, donors and operatives who arrived in Atlanta this week that Georgia was worthy of being added to the growing map of battleground states.

Though the debate was largely focused on national issues, Georgia-centric issues occasionally popped into frame.

Biden said he was the only candidate who could compete in Georgia and other Republican-led battlegrounds, while U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar criticized the state’s anti-abortion law and pressed the voting rights agenda she unveiled this week at an Atlanta museum.

“If we did something about gerrymandering, Stacey Abrams would be governor of this state right now,” Klobuchar said of the former gubernatorial nominee, who narrowly lost to Gov. Brian Kemp last year.

And in the closing minutes of the debate, the candidates were pressed on how they would ensure access to the ballot box - a defining issue in Georgia’s midterm election.

“Right now we have politicians picking out their voters, rather than the other way around,” said Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind.

Jabs and jokes

Aside from occasional clashes, the debate was largely civil. The promised attacks on Buttigieg, who has soared in recent polls, didn’t instantly materialize. Instead, better-known candidates took aim at opponents struggling in the single digits.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris swiped at U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s promise to rebuild the Democratic Party into an apparatus that “actually hears the voices of Americans who are struggling.” Taking issue, Harris accused Gabbard of being a closet Republican.

“I think that it’s unfortunate that we have someone on this stage who is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, who during the Obama administration spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President (Barack) Obama,” she said.

Buttigieg used the spotlight to continue to frame himself as a more youthful, mainstream alternative to Biden. Invoking Obama, he said Democrats shouldn’t scare off centrist voters and wavering Republicans with expensive programs that GOP candidates label as “socialist.”

“As President Obama commented recently, we are now in a different reality than we were even 12 years ago,” Buttigieg said. “And, to me, the extraordinary potential of the moment we’re in right now is that there is an American majority that stands ready to tackle big issues — that didn’t exist in the same way even a few years ago.”

There were moments of levity, too. When entrepreneur Andrew Yang was asked what he would tell Russian President Vladimir Putin if he won the election, he offered a zinger: “I’m sorry I beat your guy.”

And Booker drew laughs when he said of Biden’s opposition to legalizing marijuana: “I thought you must have been high.”

11/20/2019 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Former Georgia Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, founder of Fair Fight Georgia, speaks with members of the press before the start of the MSNBC/The Washington Post Democratic Presidential debate at Tyler Perry Studios, Monday, November 20, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

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‘Winnable state’

The former vice president, meanwhile, presented himself as the most electable candidate in the muddled field that seems as fluid as ever, with two newcomers preparing to join the field. His pitch came as the party’s more moderate wing scored victories in off-year elections in Kentucky and Louisiana.

“The bottom line is: I think we have to ask ourselves the honest question: Who is most likely to do what needs to be done?” Biden asked, wading into an ongoing debate in the party that pits incremental change pushed by more moderate candidates against sweeping overhauls championed by liberals.

Georgia Democrats relished the chance to host the event. The state party’s biggest stars, including Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, held court at fundraisers and party roundtables all week to promote Georgia’s shifting politics.

"Georgia is a winnable state," said Abrams, who narrowly lost last year's gubernatorial election. "Not only can we add 16 electoral votes, we can flip two Senate seats, take the 7th and hold the 6th (congressional districts) and take the statehouse. We have proven there is a pathway to winning the state."