Democratic presidential candidates Marianne Williamson, former Gov.John Hickenlooper,former US Vice President Joe Biden, Andrew Yang, Sen. Bernie Sanders, (2nd Row bottom) Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Michael Bennet, Rep. Eric Swalwell, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. (Photo: AFP)
All eyes turn to frontrunner Joe Biden Thursday when he and nine more Democratic presidential hopefuls take the stage for a second night of debate, with immigration, health care and economic inequality commanding the candidates' attention.
Elizabeth Warren, cementing her status as a top-tier candidate, set the tone of the first debate of the 2020 presidential race in Miami Wednesday, calling out disparities in wealth and income as "corruption, pure and simple."
The first take also featured a spirited encounter among ex-congressman Beto O'Rourke, Senator Cory Booker, former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on everything from health care and economic inequality to climate action, gun violence, Iran and immigration.
They hit out at President Donald Trump's economic and immigration policies, but diverged on how zealously the next president should shift the country onto a more liberal course.
The next round, also in Miami, features former vice president Biden, 76, squaring off against number two candidate Bernie Sanders and eight others -- the climax of the biggest American political debate since the 2016 presidential campaign.
Despite heavy campaigning in early voting states, millions of Americans were tuning in to the 2020 race for the first time Wednesday.
What they heard from the start was the progressive ideology of Warren, the night's only candidate polling in double digits, who criticized what she called a rigged system.
"When you've got a government, when you have an economy that does great for those with money and is not doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple," she said.
That theme is likely to be taken up Thursday by Warren's main progressive rival Bernie Sanders, 77, who wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal denouncing Trump's "corporate socialism."
The president, he said, "uses government power and taxpayer resources to enrich Mr Trump and his billionaire friends" while leaving ordinary Americans struggling to get by.
The mushrooming border crisis, the detention of migrant children in squalid conditions and a shocking photograph of a Salvadoran man and his daughter drowned in the Rio Grande -- prompted tense exchanges on immigration policy in the first debate.
Castro, the only Latino running, who wants to decriminalize unauthorized immigration as part of sweeping reforms, said the photograph should "piss us all off, and it should spur us to action."
De Blasio earned loud applause when he addressed citizens who have been told that immigrants have helped cause their woes.
"The immigrants didn't do that to you!" De Blasio boomed. "The big corporations did that to you."
- Trump a target -
More than any other candidate, Warren, 70, has given a picture of her presidential priorities, like instituting a wealth tax, breaking up big tech companies and securing the US election system.
In closing remarks she recalled growing up in Oklahoma where a government-funded community college helped her catch a break.
"I am in this fight because I believe that we can make our government, we can make our economy, we can make our country work not just for those at the top," she said.
But while she started off strong, Warren "went largely silent for the second half of the debate," said David Barker, a professor of government at American University in Washington.
He said her "fulsome embrace of eliminating private health insurance... is a gift to Republicans."
The candidates were divided over the controversial question of whether to abolish private insurance and switch to government health care.
De Blasio confronted O'Rourke over his reluctance to phase out private insurance despite it "not working for tens of millions of Americans."
While there was sniping among debaters, some trained their anger on Trump. Many candidates have said he should face impeachment proceedings.
Despite flying to Asia for the G20 summit Wednesday, Trump tuned in from Air Force One and tweeted his verdict: "BORING!"
For Thursday's encounter, Biden and Sanders face up-and-comers like Senator Kamala Harris, the only black woman in the race, and Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana.