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The stakes in Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate were particularly high for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who faced pressure to demonstrate his vitality to serve as president.
Sanders’ health may not have been the debate’s central focus, but with an energetic performance he achieved the goal his campaign had set for him. Notwithstanding an occasional rasp in his voice, Sanders sounded as alert, impassioned and articulate as he ever has.
The 12-candidate showdown at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, was his first campaign event since his hospitalization for a heart attack nearly two weeks ago.
With public polling showing Democrats doubting his physical viability, campaign aides vowed that the 78-year-old would assuage such concerns with a robust showing in the three-hour faceoff.
He set the tone early, inserting himself into an exchange about the business dealings of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, to expound on a different topic.
Discussing the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, Sanders reiterated one of his campaign’s enduring themes: That impeaching Trump ― or otherwise confronting his crimes ― is no substitute for delivering real economic relief for ordinary Americans.
Sanders supports the president’s ouster from office, but he said, “What would be a disaster if the American people believe that all we were doing is taking on Trump, and we’re forgetting that 87 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured, we’re forgetting about the existential threat of climate change, we are forgetting about the fact that half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck.
“What we have got to do is end this corruption, set a precedent for future history that says presidents like this cannot behave this way. But we cannot and must not turn our backs on the pain of the working class of this country.”
Time and again during the debate’s first hour, Sanders deployed the mix of passion, moral clarity, anger and dry wit that he is capable of when he is at his best.
As part of a prolonged exchange over the middle-class tax hikes that his “Medicare for All” plan entails, Sanders managed to at once shame centrist critics and draw a subtle contrast with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Warren, unlike Sanders, will not explicitly say that her support for the plan is tantamount to backing a tax increase for non-affluent earners.
“I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up,” he said.
Without naming them though, he saved his real ire for the likes of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who teamed up against Warren over her reluctance to explicitly defend tax increases that would help fund Medicare for All.
“The issue is whether the Democratic Party has the guts to stand up to the health care industry, which made $100 billion in profit, whether we have the guts to stand up to the corrupt, price-fixing pharmaceutical industry, which is charging us the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs,” he said, prompting applause from the audience. “And if we don’t have the guts to do that, if all we can do is take their money, we should be ashamed of ourselves.”
Sanders’ health and fitness to serve in the White House did not come up until the end of the second hour of the debate. CNN’s moderators asked him, Biden and Warren ― all of whom are septuagenarians and, if elected, would be the oldest to ever become a U.S. president ― to speak directly to skepticism about their viability.
“I’m healthy, I’m feeling great,” Sanders began.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey interjected with a joke.
“And Sen. Sanders is in favor of medical marijuana,” he said. “I want to make sure that’s clear, as well.”
“I do. I’m not on it tonight,” Sanders quipped back, prompting laughter.
Pressed again to address the health issue, Sanders invited everyone watching to attend his campaign’s first rally since his heart attack ― a “Bernie’s Back” gathering on the East River waterfront in Queens on Saturday. Sanders extended a warm thank you to all those across the country who had reached out to express their concern while he was ill.
“We are going to be mounting a vigorous campaign all over this country ― that is how I think I can reassure the American people,” he said.
To add to Sanders’ solid performance, the campaign confirmed toward the end of the debate that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York would be endorsing Sanders at his comeback rally in Queens on Saturday.
Sanders’ aides were ebullient about his performance. Jeff Weaver, his 2016 campaign manager and the owner of a comic book store, said campaign staffers had started calling the senator “Wolverine,” a reference to the fast-healing member of the X-Men, because of his “amazing regenerative powers.”
“If I can get a pint of his blood, I’m going to store it for the next time I’m ill,” Weaver said.
Sanders’ supporters were apparently pleased with his showing as well.
Over the course of the day Tuesday, Sanders raised over $620,000 from more than 40,000 contributions, according to the campaign. The campaign raised more money during the debate on Tuesday night than during any previous debate. From 9 to 10 p.m. Eastern, 35% of the donations coming into the Democratic small-donor site ActBlue were for Sanders, the campaign said.
“Hands down, Bernie won the debate,” said Sanders campaign spokesman Mike Casca. “His ideas dominated the night and his commanding performance left no doubt he’s ready to go toe-to-toe with Trump and defeat him.”
Kevin Robillard contributed reporting from Westerville, Ohio.