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December Democratic debate live updates: Seven candidates face off in Los Angeles

The smallest number of candidates yet will spar onstage at Loyola Marymount University starting at 8 p.m.
Image: Seven Democratic presidential candidates will take the stage in a debate sponsored by PBS Newshour and Politico  in Los Angeles on Thursday night.
Seven Democratic presidential candidates will take the stage in a debate sponsored by PBS Newshour and Politico in Los Angeles on Thursday night.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

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NBC News provided up-to-the-minute coverage of the sixth Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

The debate, hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico, featured the most intimate group of candidates to date. Just seven of the leading candidates took the stage, including frontrunners former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, as well as lower-tier candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and billionaire activist Tom Steyer.

Download the NBC News app for full politics coverage.

Live Blog

On Afghanistan, Rep. Barbara Lee’s stand gets recognition

In response to a question about what to do about continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Sanders said he was wrong to support the initial military action — and acknowledged the stand taken by Barbara Lee

Lee, a Democratic representative from California, has been an ardent anti-war advocate and was the only member of Congress to vote against military action after 9/11. 

‘Medicare for All’ has grown more popular among Democratic voters

There’s been some speculation in the last month that Elizabeth Warren’s recent slip in the polls is linked to increasing skepticism over her "Medicare for All" plan.

The NBC/WSJ poll released today showed Warren down 5 percentage points since October and down 7 since her peak in September.

But the same poll also shows that the idea of expanding Medicare for all generally hasn’t lost steam with Democratic primary voters, despite an uptick in criticism of the plans from more centrist Democrats.

In fact, it’s gotten more popular with primary voters.

The poll showed that 68 percent of Democratic primary voters back a plan that would replace private health insurance with a single payer government health care system. That share was 63 percent back in October.

But the single-payer proposal remains far less popular outside the Democratic base. Just 44 percent of all adults say they back it, compared to 72 percent who back a more moderate Medicare buy-in program that would keep private insurance in place.

Klobuchar comms director swipes at Buttigieg comms director

 

LGBTQ community’s top candidates asked about trans violence

The two candidates, who according to a one-of-its-kind Out Magazine poll are the top two picks of LGBTQ voters, were asked how they would reduce violence against transgender people.

Bernie Sanders made an intersectional call for ending all forms of discrimination against “all minorities in this country” and pivoted to a call for universal health care. 

Elizabeth Warren promised to “lift up their voices” and to read from the White House Rose Garden “the names of transgender women, of people of color, who have been killed in the past year,” to force a difficult conversation around violence against minority communities.

There are two tiers of talking time, and Sanders is in the middle.

In the top tier: Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Warren. In the bottom: Biden, Steyer and Yang. See the latest on candidate talking time here.

Candidates unify on immigration

Some of the strongest unity seen on the debate stage came when candidates were asked about immigration. 

They vowed to undo President Trump’s immigration policies on Day One or in the first 100 days of their presidencies. 

Tom Steyer delivered some of the harshest criticism, saying the president is against immigration by nonwhite people.

"This is his attempt to divide us on race. … He’s been vilifying nonwhite people. He’s been trying to inflame his base and scare them that if, in fact, white people lose control of this country, they are going to lose control of their lives,” he said. 

Steyer said those arguments have led Trump “to break the laws of humanity in our name.”

None of the candidates mentioned decriminalizing crossing the border illegally, as Julián Castro first proposed and several Democrats have since endorsed, or whether to enact a moratorium on deportations, as some advocates have demanded. 

Klobuchar claims moderate, Midwest bona fides

Amy Klobuchar — who is explicitly using her Minnesota roots to make a case for an Electoral College strategy — wasn’t having Pete Buttigieg’s attempt to claim better Midwest bona fides. 

Klobuchar said Democrats have to create a coalition of “moderate Republicans and independents as well as a fired up democratic base” to win, and said she had done it three times by winning the midwestern state of Minnesota. 

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Buttigieg countered that some things matter more than “vote totals,” like “putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana” — a reference to his mayoral re-election campaign in South Bend.

Klobuchar snapped back: “If you had won in Indiana that would be one thing — you tried and lost by 20 points,” referring to Buttigieg’s ill-fated 2010 run for Indiana state treasurer in which he won less than 40 percent of the vote.

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Reparations now?

Asked about his position on reparations, Pete Buttigieg said he supports a longstanding proposal to study the impact of paying reparations to the descendants of Africans enslaved in the United States. Then, Buttigieg suggested that in the interim, investments should be made immediately in the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, in creating equity in health care and education and expanding business opportunities because the effects of theft — in this case, the stolen labor, lives and liberty of the enslaved — compound over time, Buttigieg said. 

But when the same question was put to former Vice President Joe Biden, he pivoted with an answer that described innovation as the critical element of American economic dominance. Biden then called for sustained investment in the nation’s increasingly Latino child population. Latino children made up 25 percent of the nation’s K-12 school-aged population in 2016, according to census data analyzed by the Pew Research Center

No permanent friends, only permanent interests

The debate is showing how alliances can quickly shift, like in rounds of "Survivor."

After Warren squared off with Buttigieg and Buttigieg appeared to come out the victor, Klobuchar blindsided him. That was made possible by the fact that Warren hasn't laid a glove on Klobuchar — and the fact that both Warren and Klobuchar have an interest in knocking down Buttigieg for different reasons. Warren and Buttigieg are competing for liberal elites, while he's fighting Klobuchar for Iowans and other Midwestern moderates.

Klobuchar slammed him for having "mocked 100 years of experience" in belittling the work of Washington veterans like herself, Warren, Sanders and Biden.

"We should have someone heading up this ticket who has actually won," she said, noting that Buttigieg lost his statewide race in Indiana and his bid for Democratic National Committee chairman.

When he countered that he'd won re-election as a "gay dude" in "Mike Pence's Indiana," she shot back that South Bend isn't the whole state.

"If you had won in Indiana that would be one thing," she said before referring to his failed run for state treasurer. "You tried and you lost by 20 points."

Buttigieg has target on his back tonight

Buttigieg has emerged as the biggest target on stage for his fellow Democrats.

Moments after Warren knocked him for hosting closed-door fundraisers (particularly one that took place in California in a “wine cave”), Klobuchar went after the South Bend, Indiana, mayor. She alleged that he criticized at the last debate how much experience she, and others on stage, had.

“I think you should respect our experience,” Klobuchar said. “I respect yours as a local official, I’ve been one.”

Buttigieg hit back, saying to Klobuchar, “you actually did denigrate my experience.”

“I was going to let it go because we have bigger fish to fry,” he said.

But Klobuchar came back aggressively.

“We don’t have bigger fish to try than picking a president of the United States,” she said.

The increasing attacks on Buttigieg come as he’s emerged as the frontrunner in Iowa, whose voters will caucus in just 46 days.