MIAMI (AP) — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders admitted that his plans for universal health care and free college would require a tax increase on America's middle class as a fight for the direction of the Democratic Party played out in the opening moments of Thursday night's presidential debate.
The concession came as Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, defended his calls for dramatic policy solutions to address growing inequality.
"Yes they will pay more in taxes but less in health care for what they get," Sanders said.
A day after the first wave of 10 Democrats debated, a second 10 faced each other and the nation for the first time in a prime-time confrontation that underscored differences along lines of race, gender, generation and ideology that are starting to shape the party's search for a nominee to take on President Donald Trump.
Thursday's showdown featured four of the five strongest candidates — according to early polls, at least.
While the discussion was largely civil to begin, just beneath the surface a fierce debate simmered over the party's future.
Sanders has pulled his party to the left on key issues, calling for a political revolution that would transform the private health care system into a government-financed one and mandate a redistribution of wealth.
His appeal relies on emotion, often anger. He stood alongside former Vice President Joe Biden, who preaches pragmatism and relative moderation.
Biden, who is 76, like Sanders, who is 77, also represents a different generation than several candidates on stage. The age difference was noted by California Rep. Eric Swalwell, who said, "Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans, 32 years ago."
Biden and Sanders represented only two of 10 views on the stage Thursday night.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California Sen. Kamala Harris were among the better known candidates in the next tier. Also on stage: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, New York businessman Andrew Yang, California Rep. Eric Swalwell and author and social activist Marianne Williamson.
The showdown played out in Florida, a general election battleground that could well determine whether Trump wins a second term next year.
Biden sought to sidestep the ideological debate altogether, training his venom on Trump.
"Donald Trump thinks Wall Street built America. Ordinary middle-class Americans built America," said the former vice president. "Donald Trump has put us in a horrible situation. We do have enormous income inequality."
For much of the early campaign season, Biden has ignored his Democratic rivals, training his attention instead on the man he hopes to defeat in the general election next fall: Trump.
Biden's strategy is designed to highlight his status as the front-runner, and as such, the Democrat best positioned to take down the president at the ballot box. Above any policy disagreement, Democratic voters report that nothing matters more than finding a candidate who can beat Trump.
If nothing else, Thursday's slate highlights the diversity of the Democratic Party's 2020 class.
Buttigieg, a 37-year-old gay former military officer, is four decades younger than Sanders, and has been framing his candidacy as a call for generational change in his party. Harris is the only African American woman to qualify for the presidential debate stage. Any of the three women featured Thursday night would be the first ever elected president.
Yet Biden and Sanders have received far more attention and shown higher standing than their less-experienced rivals.
The party will have to decide whether it wants a candidate based on resume over aspiration.
Peoples reported from Washington.