LOS ANGELES -- An anxious field of Democratic contenders directed new heat at each other Thursday night, as the final debate of 2019 turned on arguments over "purity tests" and electability -- with a new leading candidate in the spotlight.
With President Donald Trump’s impeachment threatening to consume even more campaign time, the uncertainties inside the race were on full display. The smallest field of candidates on stage to date presented diverging tones for challenging times in their party.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren lit into South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg for accepting high-dollar contributions in tony locales, citing a viral photo of Buttigieg raising money in a well-appointed California locale.
"Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States," Warren said. "I do not sell access to my time."
Buttigieg pushed back by saying Democrats need resources to defeat Trump. He pointed out that all the candidates on stage -- including Warren -- have accepted money from wealthy individuals, and that all will need their support to become president.
"This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass," Buttigieg said. "We need the support from everybody who is committed to helping us defeat Donald Trump."
As to the question of who is best positioned to do just that, Sen. Amy Klobuchar singled out Buttigieg’s only statewide race -- a failed run for state treasurer.
"You tried, and you lost by 20 points," Klobuchar said.
The jostling for position among candidates in Iowa and beyond reflects a broader divide inside the Democratic Party. It’s not just liberals against moderates or experienced politicians versus new faces, though ideological and generational divides remain.
It’s about what voters want from leaders in an age that’s being consistently disrupted by Trump -- and what risks Democrats can afford to take in attempting to defeat him.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, still the national polling front-runner but barely attacked on stage Thursday, defended the concept that it’s possible to work with Republicans. Citing attacks on him and his son, he said, "If anyone has reason to be angry with the Republicans," it would be him.
"I refuse to accept the notion, as some on this stage do, that we can never, never get to a place where we have cooperation again," Biden said. "If that's the case, we're dead as a country."
Klobuchar had one of her stronger debates in part by pointing out that the Democratic Party has to work for voters in the middle of the country -- not just the coasts.
"It's not flyover country to me -- I live there," said Klobuchar, the senior senator from Minnesota.
Meanwhile, Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the two leading progressive candidates, touted themselves as the only answer to corruption they argued runs far deeper than Trump.
Warren suggested she was talking about more than the current president in pointing out flaws in the system: "When you see a government that works great for the wealthy and the well-connected and for no one else, that is corruption pure and simple. And we need to call it out for what it is," she said.
Ditto Sanders, who returned to lines he made famous in his campaign against Hillary Clinton four years ago: "We need an economy that works for working families, not just the 1%."
The debates over qualifications and substance speak to the uncertainty of the road ahead. The seven-candidate stage did not even include all the leading candidates; Mayor Michael Bloomberg is setting ad-spending records with an eye on states that vote later in the process, while Sen. Cory Booker and several other candidates did not qualify for the stage under Democratic National Committee rules.
Congress is leaving town for the holidays with members knowing that impeachment threatens to consume much of January. The candidates agreed that Trump’s top aides should testify in a Senate trial, though none directly addressed a question about why public support for impeachment is stalling.
Also mostly unaddressed on stage was the reality that talk out of Washington these days doesn’t connect neatly with voters. It was left to Andrew Yang to call out Democrats for focusing on ousting Trump at the expense of solutions that benefit Americans.
"We have to stop being obsessed over impeachment, which unfortunately strikes many Americans like a ball game where you know what the score is going to be," Yang said.
The first real points in the Democratic primary race will be scored barely a month into the new year, in as crowded a news environment as ever.
Until then, the party will be wrestling about what kind of candidate makes sense -- a conventional question in most unconventional times.