Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were accused of pursuing "wish-list economics" in the second debate of Democratic presidential candidates as the gloves came off between the party’s progressive and moderate wings.
The two left-wing senators faced a barrage of attacks from more centrist White House hopefuls as their plans to eliminate private heath insurance and spend trillions of dollars tackling climate change were targeted.
The pair were warned that their policy platform, which would amount to a historic step Left for American society if enacted, will result in inevitable defeat in 2020, with one candidate warning: "You might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump."
But Mr Sanders and Ms Warren, who are polling in second and third place respectively in the race to take on Mr Trump, gave as good as they got, energetically firing back at their more centrist rivals.
In one memorable line greeted by cheers in the audience, Ms Warren said: "I don’t understand why anybody goes through all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for."
Mr Sanders also pushed back, at one point dismissing a claim he did not know the full impact of his proposed ‘Medicare for All’ legislation with the words: "I do know, I wrote the damn bill." Before the debate was over his team was flogging badges carrying the phrase.
The debate in Detroit, Michigan, which saw 10 candidates face off against each other, helped accentuate the deep divisions within the field, leaving voters more aware of numerous policy splits.
Notable clashes came over how aggressively to pursue universal government healthcare, whether to decriminalise illegal border crossings, how stringent gun laws should be and whether promising a jobs guarantee for all Americans was sensible.
For many contenders this was the last chance to communicate their vision for the country in a nationally televised debate, with the qualifying criteria for the next contest becoming much stricter.
Within minutes of the debate starting it was clear many candidates were willing to take a more confrontational approach than last month, especially those polling in the low single figures, in an apparent attempt to stand out in a crowded field.
Steve Bullock, the governor from Montana – a state Mr Trump won in 2016 – used his opening remarks to attack those rivals "outdoing each other with wish-list economics" – a veiled reference to the progressives on stage. He would deploy the phrase at least two more times during the debate, which lasted more than two hours.
John Delaney, a former congressman from Maryland, went one step further by naming Mr Sanders and Ms Warren in his first remarks. He said they had "bad policies like Medicare for all, free everything and impossible promises that will turn off independent voters and get Trump re-elected".
The comments kicked off a theme that dominated the night as a group of centrist and lesser known candidates took potshots at the two most left-wing politicians on the stage.
Some of the fiercest clashes came over healthcare. Mr Sanders and Ms Warren’s willingness to force people to abandon their private insurance in favour of government-funded options was especially targeted.
"I’m not going to support any plan that rips away quality health care from individuals," said Mr Bullock. "Why do we have to be so extreme?" asked Mr Delaney. Tim Ryan, an Ohio congressman, warned that such a policy would be interpreted as the Democrats trying to "take away" healthcare from some of the neediest.
But both candidates stood their ground. "We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take healthcare away from anyone," Ms Warren said, insisting such claims amounted to "using Republican talking points".
There was similar sparring over the "Green New Deal", a bold progressive plan for tackling climate change that in one iteration included the ambition of guaranteeing every adult American a job.
John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado whose candidacy is yet to take off, said of the policy: "That is a disaster at the ballot box. You might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump."
The exchanges underscored the fundamental tension playing out in the Democratic Party as it weighs up which candidate is best placed to take on Mr Trump in the November 2020 election.
Some activists emboldened by Mr Trump’s unexpected victory want to tack Left, pursuing policies they have long believed in which would deliver major change. Others want to put defeating Mr Trump first and see winning back Democrats who switched and voted for the president as critical.
All the while the president himself is seeking to frame the entire Democratic Party as "radical socialists", attacking left-wing congressmen of colour to make his point. In a departure from last month’s debate in Miami, Mr Trump did not tweet during Tuesday’s clash.
Other candidates among the 10 had moments that appeared to resonate with the audience. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend who has exceeded expectations, looked down the camera lens and urged Republican congressmen to call out Mr Trump, warning history would judge them.
Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman, discussed the long legacy of slavery in America, saying "the very foundation of this country, the wealth we have built … was literally on the backs of those who were kidnapped and brought here by force."
Yet, as a result of the attacks on their policies and the rebuttals, it was Mr Sanders and Ms Warren who appeared most often in the spotlight, with the night’s breakout moments replayed on television in the coming days likely to feature them.
Ten other Democratic presidential candidates including front-runner and former vice president Joe Biden will take to the stage on Wednesday for a second night of debating in Detriot. Voting for the party’s nominee begins in February 2020.
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