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Democrats' presidential hopefuls jockey to outdo one another with pre-debate promises

Evan Halper and Janet Hook, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders burnished his socialist bona fides -- and sought to one-up progressive rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts -- with a $1.6 trillion plan to pay off all the country's college debt, an idea that could be more of a boon to the rich than the poor. Joe Biden, the former vice president and leader in current polls, rolled out an immigration plan.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee built out his framework for a future free of fossil fuels. Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke set out a multipart plan to improve services, including health care, job training and mental health support, for veterans, financed with savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And several candidates took fresh aim at the criminal justice system.

The collective policy plans of the 2020 presidential hopefuls were already so voluminous, aggressive and, in many cases, expensive that it's been tough for some candidates in this crowded field to muscle their vision into the spotlight.

But in these days leading up to the first Democratic debates in Miami, they're trying extra hard.

They're following the pattern set by Warren, who has distinguished herself with her policy prowess and has been rewarded in recent weeks by a notable rise in polls. Warren has so many detailed plans for so many issues that the logo emblazoned on her campaign merch is "Warren Has a Plan for That." As those plans gained traction with voters, pundits stopped mocking her professorial obsession with policy details, and other candidates began trying to emulate it.

The media have been put on notice that Warren will unveil yet another new plan on Tuesday.

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In some cases -- forgiving college debt being the clearest example -- the flurry of policy proposals has taken on the feel of an arms race.

Warren offered the race's first detailed proposal on college debt, saying she would forgive as much as $50,000 for up to 42 million Americans. Sanders loyalists were eager to remind voters that it was the Vermonter who first carried college affordability from a fringe issue to a central focus of American politics, when he began promoting the topic as a presidential candidate in 2016.

On Monday, Sanders promised to go beyond Warren's plan by canceling all $1.6 trillion in outstanding college debt held by Americans, regardless of income. He acknowledged the plan could benefit some people who do not need the help but said he and the lawmakers who co-sponsored the plan with him believed in "universality" -- that higher education should be a guaranteed entitlement for all Americans, along with Social Security and Medicare.

"Our response to making sure this does not benefit the wealthy is in other areas," Sanders said, "where we are going to demand the wealthy and large corporations start paying their fair share of taxes."

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