Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Kamala Harris take part in the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
MIAMI - Democratic divisions over race, age and ideology surged into public view on Thursday night as the party's leading presidential contenders faced off in a debate over who is best positioned to take on President Donald Trump.
The Democratic Party's early front-runner, 76-year-old former Vice President Joe Biden, was forced to defend his record on race in the face of tough questions from California Sen. Kamala Harris, the only African American on stage.
"I do not believe you are a racist," Harris said, though she described Biden's record of working with Republican segregationist senators on non-race issues as "hurtful."
Clearly on the defense, Biden called the Harris attack "a complete mischaracterization of my record." He declared, "I ran because of civil rights."
A day after the first 10 Democrats debated, the second 10 faced each other and the country for the first time in a prime-time confrontation that gave millions of Americans their first peek inside the Democrats' unruly 2020 season.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, admitted that his plans for universal health care and free college would require a tax increase on America's middle class. But he insisted that fundamental change is needed to address growing inequality across America. His critics warned that such an approach would leave the party open to attacks from Republicans who call them socialists.
"We think it is time for change, real change," Sanders declared.
Some candidates embraced Sanders' call for a revolution that would transform the private health care system into a government-financed one and mandate a redistribution of wealth — even as Republicans attack them as socialists.
A smaller group, led by Biden, favors a far more pragmatic approach to address the nation's problems within the current framework — emphasizing bipartisanship and moderation.
The former vice president, along with the other candidates on stage, raised his hand to say his health care plan would provide coverage for immigrants in the country illegally. Trump immediately tweeted about Democrats' answers.
“All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race,” he wrote.
Biden, like Sanders, also represents a different generation from 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, 76, quickly retorted, "I'm still holding onto that torch."
Sanders, 77, argued the issue "is not generational," insisting the field should be focused on things like "who has the guts to take on Wall Street."
Harris added her voice to the fray, saying, "Hey guys. You wanna know what America does not want to witness, a food fight. They want to know how they're going to put food on the table."
The showdown featured four of the five strongest candidates, according to early polls. Those are Biden, Sanders, Pete Buttigieg of Indiana and Harris. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who debated Wednesday night, is the fifth.
Others on the stage Thursday night included Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, New York businessman Andrew Yang and author and social activist Marianne Williamson.
The candidates denounced the Trump administration's immigration policies, but in different ways than those who debated the previous night. On Wednesday, Democratic presidential hopefuls blamed Trump for a searing photograph of a father and his daughter lying dead near the Rio Grande.
On Thursday, Harris promised to use her first day in office to help people brought to the country illegally as children become citizens. She declared she'd use "the microphone that the president of the United States holds in her hand" to be a voice for real reform on the issue.
Biden said he'd invest in Central America, while Sanders promised to repeal "every damn thing" Trump has done on immigration.
Both Bennet and Yang said that Russia poses a great threat, but they also criticized Trump's international relations approach with China. Yang said Russia "is our greatest geopolitical threat because they've been hacking our democracy successfully."
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, turning his venom on Trump.
"Donald Trump thinks Wall Street built America. Ordinary middle-class Americans built America," said the former vice president. He added: "Donald Trump has put us in a horrible situation. We do have enormous income inequality."
Thursday's candidates also highlighted the diversity of the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential hopefuls.
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.
More than 15 million people watched the first night of the debate, according to Nielsen Fast National Data. The viewership exceeded every presidential primary debate in the 2008 and 2012 elections.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.