Democratic candidates unite on impeachment

James Oliphant and Simon Lewis
Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders debated with other Democratic White House contenders

Democratic White House contenders have united in condemning Republican President Donald Trump and supporting the inquiry into his impeachment at a debate, but largely backed away from the attacks that marked their earlier encounters.

During the fifth debate on Wednesday in the Democratic race to pick a challenger to Trump in the November 2020 election, candidates expressed differences on details of healthcare and tax policy but kept their disagreements polite.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren, the progressive who has pushed ambitious plans to tax wealth and create a government-run healthcare plan, and Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has been rising the polls, escaped what had been expected to be sustained attacks from their rivals.

Buttigieg defended his relative lack of experience, saying it was not traditional establishment Washington experience but "the right experience to take on Donald Trump".

US Senator Amy Klobuchar agreed he deserved his spot on the debate stage, but she said there was a double standard when it came to women candidates.

"Otherwise we could play a game called name your favourite woman president," Klobuchar said, adding: "If you think a woman can't beat Trump, (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi does it every day."

The candidates repeatedly blasted Trump and said the president's efforts to press Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential contender, were an example of the administration's corruption.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives has launched an impeachment inquiry into Trump's bid to get Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma.

The candidates said Trump's actions had forced lawmakers to hold him accountable.

"We have to establish the principle that no one is above the law, we have a constitutional responsibility and we need to meet it," said Warren, an early supporter of Trump's impeachment.

Asked if he would support a criminal investigation into Trump after he leaves the White House, Biden said he would leave it to the Department of Justice to decide whether Trump should be prosecuted for his actions.

"If that was the judgment, that he violated the law, and he should be in fact criminally prosecuted, then so be it. But I would not direct it, and I don't think it's a good idea that we mock, that we model ourselves after Trump and say: 'Lock him up,'" he said.

The Democratic debate comes just 11 weeks before the first nominating contest in Iowa, on February 3, raising the stakes for the 10 participants hoping for a chance to make an impression with voters before time runs out.

The Democratic White House race has featured a three-way battle at the top of recent national polls between moderate Biden, the former US vice president, and progressive leaders Warren and US Senator Bernie Sanders.

But Buttigieg has taken the lead in two recent polls in Iowa and is on the move in early voting New Hampshire despite the questions about his relative lack of experience and his inability to make inroads with African-American voters.

Warren has seen some of her momentum fade after coming under fire in the last debate from rivals who questioned how she would pay for her government-run Medicare for All plan, which would eliminate private health insurance, without raising taxes on the middle class.

The field of debaters has been trimmed from the 12 candidates in last month's Democratic debate. Former US Representative Beto O'Rourke of Texas dropped out of the race and former US Housing Secretary Julian Castro was cut from the stage by the Democratic National Committee's toughened qualifying criteria.