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Elizabeth Warren leads Democrats in fiery first 2020 debate

Saul Loeb, AFP | Candidates arrive to participate in the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season.

Ten Democrats clashed in the first debate of the 2020 presidential race Wednesday with Elizabeth Warren cementing her status as a leading candidate and several underdogs using the issue of immigration to wrestle for the limelight.

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The biggest American political debate since the 2016 presidential campaign is taking place over two nights in Miami, climaxing Thursday with former vice president Joe Biden squaring off against nine challengers, including number two candidate Bernie Sanders.

Wednesday's debate saw a lively encounter between Democrats like ex-congressman Beto O'Rourke, Senator Cory Booker, former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on subjects as varied as healthcare, economic inequality, climate action, gun violence, Iran and immigration.

Massachusetts Sen. Warren, the only candidate on stage polling in double digits, dominated the debate's opening moments, calling for systemic change to the nation's economy and the end to the private insurance system.

Elizabeth Warren's bid for the US Presidency

"Who's this economy really working for? asked Warren, who received the first question.

"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," the US senator and former Harvard law professor added. "We need to call it out."

Warren also reiterated her support for Sanders' flagship proposal: universal public health insurance, and said she would be willing to abolish her own private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan. "Healthcare is a basic human right, and I will fight for basic human rights."

Tense exchanges on immigration

The diversity of the modern Democratic Party was on display - three women, one black man and a man of Mexican heritage vying for the presidential nomination. And the candidates made sure they were speaking to the party's base, which is becoming younger and less white.

For the backdrop to the debate -- the mushrooming crisis on the US-Mexico border, the detention of migrant children in squalid conditions and a shocking photograph of a Salvadoran man and his baby daughter drowned in the Rio Grande -- led to swift, tense exchanges.

Castro, the only Latino in the race, and who unveiled a sweeping immigration plan earlier this year, called the photograph "heartbreaking."

"It should also piss us all off," he said, "and it should spur us to action."

Immigration sparks heated exchanges in 2020 debate

O'Rourke, Booker and later Castro notably slipped into Spanish as they addressed the migration crisis.

De Blasio, a late entrant to the race, earned loud applause when he reminded citizens immigrants were not their enemies.

"For all the American citizens who feel you are falling behind and the American dream is not working for you, the immigrants didn't do that to you!" De Blasio boomed.

"The big corporations did that to you."

Klobuchar also rushed to the defence of immigrants, saying "they do not diminish America, they are America."

The Minnesota senator held her own as a male rival claimed he was the lone candidate who had passed legislation protecting a woman's reproductive rights.

"There's three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman's right to choose," Klobuchar shot back.

Trump a target

More than any other candidate, Warren, 70, has given a clear 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 get 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. We can make it work for everyone," she said.

"And I promise you this: I will fight for you as hard as I fight for my own family."

US President Donald Trump was an obvious target during the showdown, and while there was sniping among Wednesday's debaters, some trained their anger on the president, whom many of the candidates have said should face impeachment proceedings.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard savaged Trump on foreign policy, saying his "chickenhawk cabinet" has "led us to the brink of war in Iran”.

Trump, the elephant not in the room, was in the air traveling to Japan for a round of trade talks as Democrats faced the nation for the first time in the 2020 campaign.

Earlier in the day, he confirmed that he would watch the debate from Air Force One. His verdict as the evening got underway? "BORING!"

Another 10 candidates, including early front-runner Joe Biden, take their turn Thursday night.

Biden, 76, and fellow Democratic old-timer Sanders, 77 will face up-and-comers like Senator Kamala Harris, the only black woman in the race; Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana; and dark horse Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and political novice.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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