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Democrats offer substance but few fireworks for undecided voters at seventh debate

David Catanese, Alex Roarty and Emily Cadei, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

"I believe we accept that relief ... and we get up the next day and try to fight for a better trade deal," she said.

Sanders dismissed that proposal as unrealistic. "It is not so easy to put together new trade legislation," the Vermont independent argued. "If this is passed, I believe it will set us back a number of years." But, Sanders quickly added, "Sen. Warren is right that we need to bring the stakeholders to the table."

Of the six Democrats on the debate stage, only Tom Steyer sided with Sanders in opposing USMCA. Steyer, a financier-turned-climate change activist, argued it did not include tough enough environmental provisions.


Maybe it was the absence of combative candidates like Tulsi Gabbard. Maybe candidates felt risk-averse so close to the Iowa caucuses. Or maybe candidates just believe Democratic voters are sick and tired of negativity.

Whatever it was, a debate widely expected to be acerbic and personal in tone was instead respectful, with the six candidates intent on calmly outlining their policy differences and little else. In that way, Tuesday's showdown was a continuation of a primary that has featured little drama or interpersonal conflict, even though the race is now only weeks away from officially beginning.


There were disagreements, of course: The candidates sparred over health care, climate change, and their mutual foreign policy experiences and worldviews. But the conversation among them felt more like differences of opinion than personal attacks.

"Joe and I have a fundamental disagreement here, in case you haven't noticed," Sanders said at one point while sparring with Biden over trade agreements, drawing laughs from the audience. The senator explained their differences, but his answer lacked any sharp invective directed at the former vice president.

There may be one simple explanation for the debate's unexpectedly calm tone: Going on the attack hasn't worked. Other candidates who have tried to mix it up on stage during past debates, like Gabbard, Julian Castro or Kamala Harris, all faced voter backlash, a lesson the remaining hopefuls might have internalized.



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