Despite sparks, Trump was the unifying agent during Democratic presidential debate

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Democratic presidential candidates descended on Houston for the third presidential debate amid a flurry of polls showing many of them beating or tied with President Trump nationally – and in Texas. 

Trump was the unifying agent for all the candidates on stage Thursday night at one of the largest historically black universities, Texas Southern University. Many called the president some version of a white supremacist, who, former congressman Beto O’Rourke said, is a “mortal threat” to people of color. 

Sen. Kamala Harris connected the president’s anti-immigrant rhetoric to violence around the mass shootings in Texas. The president didn’t “pull the trigger but he’s been tweeting out the ammunition,” she said.

Several of O’Rourke’s fellow contenders praised his leadership during the domestic terrorist attack at an El Paso Walmart last month. He reiterated his policy on assault rifles.

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said.

Healthcare was one of the issues where policy differences were most pronounced. 

When asked if Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were pushing too far with Medicare for All, a plan to create a national health insurance program by expanding Medicare, Biden said he supported building on the Affordable Care Act and questioned how the duo would pay for their plan.

Responding directly to Biden, Warren said, “The people at the top, the richest individuals and biggest corporations are going to pay more,” and that overall healthcare costs would come down under her plan. She dodged a follow up question as to whether that would require a tax increase on middle income Americans. 

During one arresting moment that invited audible gasps from the audience, Castro accused Biden of forgetting his own healthcare plan. “You said they would have to buy in,” he said of Biden’s public option plan. “… Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?”

Of the swipe at Biden’s memory, Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas, noted “Castro needs a high-risk/ high-reward strategy right now.”

Polling released this week shows Texas voters pick, in this order, Biden (26%), Warren (18%), and O’Rourke (14%). Castro remains at 3%.

Morning Consult has the president losing 15 points in the Lone Star State since he took office. 

On immigration, moderator Jorge Ramos asked Biden if he regretted the Obama Administration’s record on deportations. Biden bucked the question but painted a bright contrast between Obama’s immigration policies and Trump’s. “We didn’t lock people up in cages. We didn’t separate families.”

The Texas Republican Party leaned into the president’s anti-immigration policies. “Texans know we must continue @realdonaldtrump’s efforts to keep dangerous gangs out of the country,” they tweeted during the debate.

The 2020 election is still over a year out, polls will go up and down, and Trump will run an aggressive campaign. But so will Democrats.

Photo: Robyn Beck /AFP/Getty Images

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