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September Democratic Debate: Live updates from Houston

NBC News' live blog with the top coverage of the third democratic primary debate for the 2020 presidential election hosted by ABC in Texas on September 12, 2019.
Image: Democratic Debate Live Blog
Adrian Lam / NBC News

The 10 leading Democratic candidates faced off on the same stage for the first time in Houston Thursday night. Health care, education, trade, racial inequality, immigration and gun control were once again front and center. Read on for the biggest moments, fact-checks and analysis.

Download the NBC News app for full coverage of the third Democratic debate.

What was going on between Biden and Castro on health care?

Benjy Sarlin

Things got a little confusing in the debate when former Housing Secretary Julián Castro accused former Vice President Joe Biden of forgetting what he had said earlier on health care — an exchange that drew attention for perhaps implying an attack on Biden’s age and memory.

The clash came after Castro criticized Biden’s health care plan for not automatically enrolling all uninsured Americans in a Medicare-like plan, as Castro says his plan would do.

“The difference between what I support and what you support, Vice President Biden, is that you require them to opt in and I would not require them to opt in, they would automatically be enrolled — they wouldn't have to buy in,” Castro said. “That's a big difference, because Barack Obama's vision was not to leave 10 million people uncovered.”

When Biden protested that “they would not have to buy in,” Castro said he was contradicting an earlier claim that people would have to “buy in” to Medicare. Biden responded, “I said if they can’t afford it!”

Two issues are at play here: One is the narrow issue of what Biden said earlier; two is a disagreement between the two on health care policy. Read more about what was really going on in the dust-up.

Texas GOP lawmaker tells Beto O'Rourke: 'My AR is ready for you'

A Texas state representative had a menacing response to Beto O'Rourke's statement in Thursday's debate that "hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15."

"My AR is ready for you Robert Francis," Republican Representative Briscoe Cain tweeted about O'Rourke, using the presidential candidate's legal first and middle name.

Cain's tweet was heavily ratioed on Twitter, meaning it received more outraged comments than likes or retweets. Within three hours, 3,400 people had commented on the post, and 89 people retweeted it.

O'Rourke was one of those who was upset. "This is a death threat, Representative. Clearly, you shouldn't own an AR-15 — and neither should anyone else," he wrote.

When asked about mandatory buybacks for assault weapons during the debate, O'Rourke's response drew loud applause: "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47," he said. "We're not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore. If it's a weapon that was designed to kill people on the battlefield, we're going to buy it back."

Fact check: Is America's child poverty rate one of the highest in the world?

Elizabeth Janowski

At one point, Sanders claimed, "We have the highest child poverty rate of almost any country on Earth."

This is hyperbole — there are numerous less-developed nations with higher child poverty rates.

America's child poverty rate is above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average, but a slew of other countries have even higher child poverty rates, including Russia, Spain, India, Israel, Brazil and China.

Another thing that did not come up in the debate: cheeseburgers

NBC News

Fact check: Buttigieg on teacher compensation

Buttigieg told a story about a Japanese exchange student in Indiana who returned to her home country and, after failing to pass a teacher’s exam, became a doctor — seeming to imply that teachers in Japan are compensated on par with those in the medical profession. 

“She took the exam to try to become a teacher in a society that really regards teachers and compensates teachers well. And she came up just short. So, you know what she did? Since she was academically good but couldn't quite make the cut to be a teacher, she had a fall-back plan; she became a doctor. That is how seriously some countries treat the teaching profession. If we want to get the results that we expect for our children, we have to support and compensate the teaching profession. Respect teachers the way we do soldiers and pay them more like the way we do doctors,” Buttigieg said.

According to data from the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), American teachers are actually paid better than Japanese teachers.

Primary school teachers in Japan with 15 years' experience make approximately $51,000 a year. American primary school teachers with the same level of experience make approximately $62,000 a year.

Luxembourg might have been a better example: Teachers at this level make $104,000 a year.

Fact check: Filibuster-free Senate would have saved 2013 bills on background checks, assault weapons ban

Elizabeth Warren, in defending her campaign position that she would roll back the legislative filibuster — a move that would allow Senate bills to advance to a full vote with a simple majority instead of the 60 the modern filibuster requires to end debate on a bill and move on to the vote — made the claim that “we’re not going to get anything done on guns” without her proposed roll-back.

“I was in the United States Senate when 54 senators said let's do background checks, let's get rid of assault weapons, and with 54 senators, it failed because of the filibuster,” she said.

This isn’t exactly true. Warren appears to be conflating two separate votes.

In 2013, following the December 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Senate held several votes on gun control bills. At the time, Democrats (as well as Independents that aligned with Democrats) controlled 55 seats in the Senate.

One vote was for a bill to expand and strengthen background checks on gun sales. Another vote was for a bill to ban assault weapons. Both failed. The so-called “Manchin-Toomey” compromise on background checks failed 54-46, meaning it could have passed a filibuster-free Senate, as Warren claimed Thursday.

But only 40 senators voted for the assault weapons ban (it failed 60-40), meaning a filibuster-free Senate could have not saved it. 

Biden aides push back at Castro attacks

Biden campaign advisers Kate Bedingfield, Anita Dunn and Symone Sanders scrummed in the spin room. Asked about the healthcare exchange with Castro, Dunn referred to it as a cheap shot and said he hasn’t learned the lesson other candidates at previous debates learned: that these attacks on Biden backfire.

"It was a cheap shot and a question Castro should answer," Dunn said.

Castro clarifies Biden criticism: 'It's about the health care policy'

NBC News

Castro addresses his attacks on Biden in a post-debate interview with ABC.

"I wasn't taking a shot at his age," Castro said. "It's about the health care policy."

RNC, Trump campaign blast Democrats’ ‘socialist’ policies

Rebecca Shabadis in Washington, D.C.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a post-debate statement that the Democratic contenders would hurt U.S. communities with what she described as their “radical, socialist policies.” 

“Tonight’s debate featured no new ideas to empower Americans as they work and raise their families. Instead, Democrats again promised tax hikes, ending private health insurance, and a total government takeover of our lives,” said McDaniel, adding, “President Trump will continue to fight for the American people.”

Trump’s re-election campaign echoed that message, with spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany saying that Democrats’ “big government socialism would force a government takeover of healthcare, eliminate private insurance, provide free healthcare to illegal immigrants, kill millions of jobs by ending the fossil fuel industry, disarm the American public, and raise taxes to pay for their radical agenda.”

Fact check: Do 90 percent of Americans want to ban assault weapons?

"Over 90 percent of the American people think we have to get assault weapons off the street — period. And we have to get buy-backs and get them out of their basements," Biden said during Thursday night's debate.

This is an exaggeration. Americans tend to support banning the sale of assault rifles, but mandatory buybacks are another question. 

According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted last month, 70 percent of Americans said they support banning assault-style weapons. A Monmouth University survey this month found that 56 percent of Americans approve of a ban on assault rifles, but support falls dramatically when it comes to giving up the guns they already own. Just 43 percent of respondents supported a mandatory buyback program in the Monmouth survey. 

And when Gallup asked in 2018 if respondents would be “for or against” a law making it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles, just 40 percent of respondents said they favored such a law.

Anticipated Biden v. Warren clash never materialized

It was what everyone was looking forward to: Biden, the front-runner since he joined the Democratic race, vs. Warren, who’s been slowly and steadily gaining ground on him. Thursday was the first time the two would be on stage together. 

In the lead-up to the debate, both candidates signaled they’d be drawing contrasts with each other, with Biden’s campaign going the furthest in saying that getting things done was more important than having a lot of "plans." Plus, attention was given to the candidates’ contentious history in the run-up to Thursday.

But the anticipated clash never happened. In fact, the two had little chance to address each other. Biden, Sanders and Warren had an exchange early on regarding one another's health care plans, but that was the extent of it. For a long stretch in the middle of the debate, Warren went without being addressed by the moderators. Biden, meanwhile, was fending off attacks from Castro and others on stage.

As a result, the debate appeared unlikely to move the needle between Biden and Warren.

Here's which candidates took aim at President Trump the most

Andrew Williams

For someone who wasn’t on the stage, President Trump got a lot of attention from the Democratic presidential candidates in tonight’s debate. Candidates criticized Trump on issues from immigration to trade policy and health care. 

The debate ended with 60 verbal attacks from the candidates, 28 of them aimed at Trump.

Leading the list were Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke.

See the full attack tracker, cataloging the candidate attacks, here.

Third debate down, fourth to go

Thirsty for more? If so, yikes.

But no harm in getting ready. The fourth debate is set for Oct. 15 (and, unbelievably, maybe Oct. 16 if we need to go back to two nights). The qualifying criteria is the same. All 10 candidates on the stage tonight automatically qualify for the next debate, and billionaire activist Tom Steyer says he's reached the polling to qualify. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard appears to have enough donors, but still needs to reach 2 percent in two more qualifying polls to make the cut. Author Marianne Williamson also appears to have hit the donor threshold, but she needs three more polls to make the stage. The deadline to qualify is Oct. 1. 

What was not mentioned at the debate?

Dartunorro Clark

A breadth of topics were discussed in tonight's third Democratic debate, but several major issues were not touched upon. There was only a single mention of the minimum wage by Sanders, and one indirect mention of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia and Trump by Harris. There was no talk however, about abortion, LGBTQ rights, Israel, Brexit, Big Tech, labor or impeachment.

Who was on the attack at tonight's debate: The final tally

Catch up on the full play-by-play here.

Protests interrupt Biden's final answer

Muffled screaming could be heard coming from the back of the auditorium as Biden began speaking during the candidates' closing statements about professional setbacks. The uproar caused confusion and stopped the debate for about a minute.

According to Bloomberg, they were protesting immigration and wore shirts that read, "Defend DACA, Abolish ICE, Citizenship for All."

Reproductive rights, abortion questions missing from debate

While tonight’s debate was full of heated exchanges over health care, student debt and race issues, a major topic was missing: reproductive rights. Republican-led legislatures in various states are currently pushing abortion restrictions, and women seeking abortions in states like Texas and Mississippi continue to face severely limited options. None of which came up on the debate stage tonight.

Buttigieg closes with coming out tale

Buttigieg finishes the debate by telling his coming out story.

"As a military officer serving under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and as an elected official in the state of Indiana when Mike Pence was governor, at a certain point, when it came to professional setbacks, I had to wonder whether just acknowledging who I  was was going to be the ultimate career ending setback," he said.

"So I just came out," he said, diving back into the story of his 2015 coming out in a local South Bend newspaper article.

"They reelected me with 80 percent of the vote," Buttigieg said, in a familiar stump speech. "What I learned is that trust can be reciprocated."

His husband weighed in on Twitter shortly after:

Fact check: Booker on the problem of child lead poisoning in America

"There’s over 3,000 jurisdictions in America where children have more than twice the blood lead levels than Flint, Michigan," Booker said.

This is accurate, according to studies published in the past few years. 

A 2016 analysis by Reuters of lead testing results across the U.S. found almost 3,000 neighborhoods with lead poisoning rates in children at least double of those in Flint. Reuters continued conducting their analysis into 2017, and an updated study published that year found that the number had increased to more than 3,800.

Fact check: Booker says majority of gun deaths occur in urban areas

"The majority of homicide victims come from neighborhoods like mine," Booker said, referencing his Newark, New Jersey, home during a discussion on gun violence.

This is true. According to data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2015-2016, 63 percent of firearm homicides occurred in a metropolitan area.

Biden struggles with Iraq answer

Biden has had a long time to think about his role in the Iraq war, from his vote to authorize it more than 15 years ago to the prominent part he played in the Obama administration’s drawdown of troops as vice president.

But he struggled to give a cogent answer when he was asked whether it was a mistake to pull out of Iraq when the U.S. did because the rise of ISIS required troops to be deployed back to the region.

He even appeared to claim that "we predicted" the major problem that precipitated sending troops back in. 

"It was later, when we came into office, that Barack, the president, turned to me, and said 'Joe,' when they said we have a plan to get out, he turned to the whole security and said 'Joe will organize this. Get the troops home,'" Biden said.

"My son spent a year in Iraq and I understand. And we were right to get the combat troops out. The big mistake that was made, which we predicted, was we would not have a circumstance where the Shia and the Kurds would not work together to keep ISIS from moving in."

Biden fumbles a point

The former vice president started off well, but his last couple answers have been tough to follow. 

In an answer on what he would do about injustices that stem from slavery, he starts talking about education but somehow ends up talking about social workers going over to homes in lower-income communities to teach parents how to be better parents, essentially, adding that they would do things like keep the “record player on” at night so young children would hear and learn more words.

There was a point in there, somewhere, but unfortunately for Biden, the answer in total was jumbled — to put it lightly.

Sanders: 'We are going to cancel all student debt in this country'

Benjy Sarlin

Sanders talked up his plan to cancel all $1.6 trillion in student debt in the country.

"We are going to cancel all student debt in this country and we are going to do that by imposing a tax on Wall Street," he said. He’s the only one willing to go that far for now. Warren has a plan to cancel up to $50,000 in debt for households making under $250,000 that she estimates would knock out $640 billion of debt.

Both plans speak to an explosion in student loan debt over the last decade, but they’re controversial within the party, with critics warning they’d reward too many well-off Americans and breed resentment in others who don’t qualify for benefits. Many in the field have proposed alternative approaches like tying debt forgiveness to public service and making it easier to refinance loans at lower rates. 

To read about every candidate’s individual plans for student debt and college affordability, check out our issues page.

The Democratic shift against charter schools

Benjy Sarlin

Yang said he was "pro good schools" in response to a question on charter schools, independently operated public schools that tend to not be unionized. 

Elizabeth Warren appeared to take a pot shot at the concept, saying "money for public schools should stay in public schools, not go anywhere else."

Charter schools enjoyed prominent backing from Democrats under President Obama, but the 2020 president field has soured on them amid a spate of strikes by public school teachers and clashes with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a prominent charter school advocate.

Fact check: Are 30 million people uninsured in America?

“Right now, 30 million Americans don’t have coverage,” Harris said of the state of health care in the U.S. Thursday night.

This is mostly true. The Census Bureau released data this week that found that 27.5 million people were uninsured for all of 2018, while another 10.6 million reported they had health care for less than the entire year. The number of uninsured Americans rose from 2017.

Impeachment going unmentioned

Rebecca Shabadis in Washington, D.C.

The debate entered its third hour and moderators have not yet asked about impeachment, and none of the candidates have mentioned it even though earlier in the day, the House Judiciary Committee took a major step in its ongoing investigation into whether to recommend the filing of articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump. 

Passed along party lines, the committee adopted a resolution that set procedures and rules for future impeachment investigation hearings

Several of the Democratic presidential candidates have voiced support for impeachment proceedings to begin against the president, while others have been more cautious on the issue. Impeachment came up at the last Democratic debate in late July in Detroit, but not until the latter half of the event.

While Democrats have not set a deadline for recommending articles of impeachment, congressional staff have suggested a pre-election year timeframe, and House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said this week he’d like to decide it “rather rapidly.”

Fact check: Sanders on job losses in America due to NAFTA, China

Sanders said the effects of NAFTA, combined with the effects of granting “permanent normal trade relations” status to China, often referred to as PNTR, cost the U.S. 4 million jobs.

“Joe and I strongly disagree on trade. I helped lead the opposition, the NAFTA, the PNTR, which cost this country over 4 million good-paying jobs,” Sanders said of Biden's views. 

This appears to be true, according to several reputable analyses. As NBC News’ Carrie Dann reported in February during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, job losses resulting from NAFTA tend to be overstated — but one major study found that more than 850,000 jobs were displaced by the pact. 

Robert E. Scott of the pro-labor Economic Policy Institute found that about 851,700 U.S. jobs were displaced by the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico between 1993 (shortly before NAFTA was implemented) and 2014. That’s a data point that was cited by Sanders during his 2016 campaign, when he frequently decried job losses due to NAFTA. (Other studies, however, have found the job losses to be far less.)

When it comes to granting PNTR status to China, which President George W. Bush formally granted in 2001 after China entered the World Trade Organization, U.S. job losses have been larger, according to studies.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service wrote in 2018, citing a 2014 study by the Economic Policy Institute, that “growth in the U.S. goods trade deficit with China between 2001 and 2013 eliminated or displaced 3.2 million U.S. jobs (three-fourths of which were in manufacturing).”

If you add the 851,700 figure with the 3.2 million figure, you would see a figure that approximates the 4 million figure that Sanders referred to Thursday night. 

Booker, vegan, asked in Texas: Should more Americans follow your diet?

When asked if Americans should follow his diet, Booker, a vegan, said “no,” emphasizing the answer in English and Spanish.

The gag landed, but Booker would not likely gain much support in the polls with any other answer, as a 2018 Gallup poll found that just 3 percent of Americans called themselves vegan in 2018 — and just 5 percent more say they’re vegetarian. 

Booker turned his answer to a denunciation of the environmental costs of corporate farming, and then took a hard pivot to the plight of homeless and sick veterans. 

What are the candidates talking about on climate?

Benjy Sarlin

Several candidates discussed their plans for climate change, where much of the field have put out multitrillion-dollar plans to invest in renewable energy, research and infrastructure and issue new regulations on buildings, cars and power plants. 

To read about all the candidates’ individual plans and an explanation of the Green New Deal resolution driving the debate, check out our issue page. 

Beto fundraising off assault weapons pledge

NBC News

It's a clear reference to Warren "having a plan for that."

Fact check: Does the U.S. spend twice as much on health care as 'any other major country on Earth?'

"Let us be clear Joe, in the United States of America, we are spending twice as much per capita on health care as the Canadians and any other major country on Earth," Sanders said on Thursday.

Overall, this claim is exaggerated. The U.S. actually spent more than twice as much per capita on health care as Canada, but the nation isn't spending twice as much as "any other major country on Earth."

The U.S. spends $10,586 per capita on health care, according to data from the intergovernmental Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It's twice as much — or more — per capita on health care as many other countries, but not all of them. Switzerland, for instance, pays $7,317 per capita. The U.S. also far outspends countries like Russia, which spends $1,514 on health care per capita.

Timing is everything

The longer answers afforded the candidates tonight are providing candidates with the chance to make nuanced and more complete points, but it also means some candidates can entirely disappear for long periods of time.

That’s making it a bit disjointed, especially since after the health care exchange, there hasn’t been too many heated exchanges between candidates. Right now, it’s mostly oratory.

Buttigieg hits Trump’s Scotland problem

In the midst of talking about U.S. foreign policy and Afghanistan, Buttigieg hits on a recent Trump scandal in which a U.S. Air Force crew was found to have stayed at one of the president’s hotels during a layover in Scotland. He pivoted to saying that, as someone who served in Afghanistan, he understands the responsibilities of military command and would not let U.S. troops down.

Warren gets direct with Afghanistan promise

Steve Kornacki

Joe Biden is the most-attacked candidate so far

And Bernie Sanders has delivered the most attacks.

Fact check: Biden says Obama didn't put people in cages

"Comparing [Obama] to the president we have is outrageous, number one. We didn’t lock people up in cages, we didn’t separate families, we didn’t do all of those things,” Biden said, defending the Obama administration’s record on immigration after a question about deportations. 

Biden is half right. The Obama administration did detain people in cage-like structures, earning criticism from activists. Last year, Democratic activists circulated photos of children inside chain link fenced spaces in an attack on President Donald Trump, only for onlookers to later realize the photos were from 2014.

Biden is correct to say that the Obama administration did not separate families as a policy. The Obama administration detained whole families together, while the Trump administration made it a policy last year to detain children, including babies and toddlers, without their parents, leaving other children to tend to them and sometimes losing track of their parents. 

Harris jabs Trump with 'Oz' reference

Harris came out with a jab at Trump that drew some laughs and applause. 

"He reminds me of 'The Wizard of Oz' — when you pull back the curtain and it’s a really small dude?" she said

Moderator George Stephanopoulos, known in part for his slight stature, offers a chuckle and responds, "I’m not going to take the bait."

Buttigieg touts South Bend ID program

Buttigieg talked up an immigration-related accomplishment Thursday night he once shied away from mentioning on the campaign trail.

“The only reason that South Bend is growing right now, after years of shrinking, is immigration. It’s one of the reasons we acted, not waiting for Washington, to create city-issued municipal IDs, so that people regardless of immigration status in our city had the opportunity to have the benefits of identification,” the South Bend mayor said. 

NBC News reported on Buttigieg’s program back in June. South Bend’s “Community Resident Card” program was the result of Buttigieg's desire to coax the city’s 4,500 undocumented immigrants out of the shadows without jeopardizing their well being. Read more about the unique program here.

Dems go after Trump on China policies, say they would use tariffs in combating China

Candidates were asked about how they would handle the ongoing China trade war, which Trump has ratcheted up. Yang was the first to go, saying he would not remove tariffs right away but come up with a plan to deal with intellectual property theft.

Buttigieg said Trump mocked him, suggesting it was impossible to conceive of him making a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Buttigieg shot back that he would love to see Trump make a deal with China, adding he thought that was supposed to happen months ago.

The moderators moved on to Klobuchar, Castro, Warren and Harris, who hit Trump’s strategy but insisted on taking China to task.


Trump reacts to Democratic debate

Rebecca Shabadis in Washington, D.C.

As the third Democratic debate got underway in Houston Thursday night, President Donald Trump took aim at several of the candidates taking the stage there, including Warren and Biden.

"I hit Pocahontas way too early. I thought she was gone. She's emerged from the ashes and now it looks like she could beat Sleepy Joe, he's falling asleep. He has no idea what the hell he's doing or saying," Trump said in remarks before House Republicans at their annual retreat in Baltimore Thursday night.

Trump brought out another favored trail nickname for a Democratic rival, calling Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., "Crazy Bernie" and mocked the pronunciation of South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg's name, repeatedly saying, "Boot-edge-edge."

The president then brought up Chinese President Xi Jinping. "Whoa boy. He’s a furious kind of a guy. Great guy. He’s dying to see ... he wants Sleepy Joe."

If Yang can’t fulfill cash giveaway, then Alexis Ohanian will

After Yang’s pledge to give $1,000 a month to 10 random American families raised questions about possible campaign finance violations, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian tweeted that “I like this idea so much,” he’ll personally step in if Yang can’t. 

Fact check: Would Biden's health care plan leave 10 million uncovered?

“The problem with your plan is that it leaves 10 million people uncovered,” Castro said during Thursday’s debate, criticizing Biden's health care proposal.

This is mostly true, according to the text of Biden's own plan. His plan estimates that his expansion of the Affordable Care Act would insure "more than an estimated 97 percent of Americans."

There’s an estimated 327 million people living in America; 3 percent of the population is approximately 10 million. Estimates on the number of non-citizens vary and it's unclear how Biden's proposal would affect immigrant communities in practice, which could change these numbers. Still, Biden has said he wants to give everyone a chance to be covered.

Gun restrictions have broad support

Carrie Dann

As Democrats debate some new gun restrictions, some of their proposals will fall on receptive ears among Democratic primary voters — and among many voters who aren't Democrats as well. 

An August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that:

  • Eighty-nine percent of all Americans and 97 percent of Democratic primary voters support expanding background checks to all firearm sales and transfers.
  • Sixty-two percent of all Americans and 87 percent of Democratic primary voters support banning the sale of selected semi-automatic firearms referred to as assault weapons.
  • And three quarters of all Americans and 89 percent of Democratic primary voters support a voluntary program where the government would buy back firearms that people no longer want.

What's not popular: Only a quarter of Americans back a ban on the sale of all handguns. 

The pack shines

Democratic presidential hopefuls New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders gesture during the third Democratic primary debate in Houston on Sept. 12, 2019.ROBYN BECK / AFP - Getty Images

A lot of the hype coming into tonight was in having Biden, Warren and Sanders — the three front-runners — on the same stage. But the seven other candidates have been solid, at times taking up major chunks of the debate without a word from the top three.

Vice deporter-in-chief?

Janell Ross

The Obama administration deported more undocumented immigrants than any previous administration, earning Obama the moniker "deporter in chief" among some immigrant rights groups.

Asked during the debate if the Obama administration made a mistake deporting so many people, Biden distanced himself from the results of Obama-era immigration policy. Biden also described the administration’s deportation and detention practices as the work of a former president doing his best, and described Obama’s immigration policy as entirely different from that of the Trump administration’s practice of separating families and placing detainees in cages. 

During the Obama years, unaccompanied child migrants and entire families with children were housed in facilities that included cages.

Image: Jeh Johnson
NOGALES, Ariz. - Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, center-left, visits the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Nogales Placement Center with Governor Jan Brewer and Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino in Nogales, Ariz. on June 25, 2014.Barry Bahler / DHS

However, one major difference between the Obama and Trump administrations, recognized by most human rights advocates, is that the Trump administration has held individuals, including children, in detention for longer periods of time. 

The Trump administration has also taken legal steps to eliminate court orders restricting the period of time a child can be held in detention and what health or sanitary supplies the government is obligated to provide to those in immigrant detention.

Fact check: Klobuchar says three gun control bills are waiting 'on Mitch McConnell’s desk'

Klobuchar poked at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for inaction on gun control measures, saying that the Kentucky Republican has three bills on his desk right now: "Universal background checks, closing the Charleston loophole, and passing my bill to make sure domestic abusers don’t get AK-47s.”

This is true — but all three bills face an unclear, if not flat-out bleak, fate in the GOP-controlled Senate.

In February, the Democratic-controlled House passed a law closing the “Charleston loophole,” which allows the sale of a firearm if a background check is not completed within three days. It’s a loophole that allowed Dylann Roof to obtain the weapon he used to murder nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. 

In March, the House passed a bill that would expand background checks for gun purchases to include buys made at gun shows, online and other private sales. And in April, the House voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with new language that would close the so-called boyfriend loophole. Under current law, it is illegal for spouses or ex-spouses who have been convicted of abuse or who are under a restraining order to buy a gun. But the law doesn’t apply to romantic partners who aren’t legally married. 

Warren and Sanders split over Senate rules

Warren said as president she'd get rid of the filibuster — a move the president can influence but only members of the chamber have a vote on — to advance gun-control legislation. She framed the filibuster, which allows a minority of 41 senators to stop legislation, as corrupt. 

But Sanders said he does not favor eliminating the tool, which both liberal and conservative senators have long used against majorities, even though it could be a major obstacle to his Medicare for All health care plan if he wins the presidency and Democrats take control of the Senate.

Sanders has instead said that he would use a parliamentary process called "reconciliation" for a Medicare for All bill and refashion the chamber’s rules around that if necessary.

Beto gets the home-state love

Mark Murray

It helps to be the home-state candidate, and tonight’s debate has been especially beneficial for Texan Beto O’Rourke, who has been praised by much of the entire field for his handling of the El Paso shootings. 

Fellow-Texan Julián Castro praised O’Rourke when he received a question about racism and the El Paso shootings. So did Joe Biden. And Kamala Harris. And Cory Booker.

Castro calls Biden on flip-flopping on Obama’s legacy

Dartunorro Clark

Castro really went after Biden hard after the former vice president was questioned about the administration’s immigration policy. Castro, who served as HUD secretary under Obama, used the moment to hit Biden for "taking credit" for the good under Obama and distancing himself from the criticism of the administration.

What to watch for is how his attacks might help Castro in the polls by attacking the front-runner.

Image: Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro speaks during the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston
Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro speaks during the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston, on Sept. 12, 2019.Mike Blake / Reuters

'Gun violence is not a side issue for me'

Booker reminded Democrats of their minority base when he pointed out that "gun violence is not a side issue for me" because more people die daily in communities like his than in mass shootings.

Without that empathy, the issue won’t be solved, Booker said. 


Bernie pivots from guns to lobbying

Bernie uses the discussion about gun violence to pivot to one of his most consistent talking points: the lobbying that goes on in Washington. He equates the gun lobby to big pharma, and notes he got an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association.

More of what the candidates are saying ... but in one sentence.

Beto praised for El Paso response

Dartunorro Clark

In a respite from the sparring, the former Texas congressman was consistently praised by his competitors — Biden, Harris and Booker — about how he handled the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso.

Beto: 'Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47'

Benjy Sarlin

The debate highlights a significant shift on guns within the party since recent mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. 

After the El Paso and Dayton shootings, O’Rourke came out for a mandatory buyback of so-called assault weapons along with a ban, an idea that’s been praised by Harris since then as well. "Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said in the debate.

A similar policy was implemented in Australia after a mass shooting in 1996, but the idea had next to no backing among major American gun advocacy groups or politicians until 2018, when former presidential candidate Congressman Eric Swalwell introduced a mandatory buyback plan. 

Gun experts still have concerns about implementation, however, especially as gun rights activists warn that owners may refuse to turn in their weapons in protest. Biden and Klobuchar have suggested voluntary buybacks instead, a much less far-reaching idea sometimes done at the local level. 

Booker also repeated his call for a licensing program for gun owners, an idea that’s been proposed in the past and already exists at the state level for some firearms, but had fallen out of favor among national politicians until recently. 

Fact check: Booker says African Americans are almost four times more likely to be incarcerated

Booker, talking about a "savagely broken" criminal justice system, said, “African Americans are almost four times more likely to be incarcerated” than other Americans.

He's right — in fact, it’s more than four times when it comes to white Americans. 

According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated more than five times the rate of whites. And according to a 2018 analysis by the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice nonprofit and research group, African Americans are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites.

Klobuchar avoids question on police accountability

Janell Ross

Klobuchar served as the lead prosecutor of Minnesota’s largest county for eight years beginning in 1999. During that period, Klobuchar declined to prosecute a single police officer in questionable shootings or uses of force. Klobuchar instead routinely put these case before grand juries which rarely indict police officers, Minneapolis Public Radio reported in March.

Asked about this pattern on the debate stage Thursday, Klobuchar described the question's content as inaccurate, then made reference to cases she prosecuted involving black child victims injured or killed by private citizens. 

Conflating street crime and questions of police conduct, as well as challenging calls for police accountability with claims that insufficient attention is paid to injuries and deaths caused by criminals, is a go-to conservative strategy.

Groundhog Day in Houston

Mark Murray

Tonight’s debate was supposed to stand out because it’s the first featuring 10 candidates on one night — and it’s the first with Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren on the same stage. 

But nearly one hour into it, what is really standing out is how similar it sounds to the previous two rounds of debates: an opening clash over health care, the divide between progressives and pragmatists and pointed questions on race.

One significant difference between tonight’s debate and the others is that it comes after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton — something the candidates touched on, including Texans Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro.

But many of the other questions could have been asked at the previous debates.

And they were.

Attack tracker update: One hour in

One hour in, Trump has been attacked 11 times. As for the candidates, it’s a tie: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have been attacked the most and have given the most attacks.

Biden: Only violent criminals should be in jail

Biden opened some eyes when he said "nobody should be in jail for a non-violent crime." It was a noteworthy comment from someone who led the 1994 crime bill through the Senate — a piece of legislation he's repeatedly come under fire for.

Additionally, it would be surprising if Biden really felt that white collar, non-violent criminals like Bernie Madoff should not be imprisoned for their wrongdoing.

On a first-name basis

Biden calls O’Rourke "Beto," then quickly apologizes.

It's reminiscent of the 2008 VP debate between Biden and then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who kicked off the debate by asking him, "Can I call you Joe?"

Will Kamala Harris’s record as a prosecutor continue to dog her?

Dartunorro Clark

Since launching her campaign, Harris has been dogged by questions about her record as California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney. Young black left-leaning voters have expressed skepticism of her background, but Harris continues to call herself a "progressive prosecutor" and say she took on the role to work on criminal justice from the inside.

The lawmaker, however, did get a round of applause inside the debate hall at the historically black college when she said that she would end for-profit prisons on day one.

Image: Senator Kamala Harris speaks during the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston
Sen. Kamala Harris from California speaks during the 2020 Democratic presidential debate in Houston on Sept. 12, 2019.Mike Blake / Reuters

Biden claims Sanders' health care plan would cost twice the federal budget. That's false.

Drawing a contrast between his health care plan and Sanders' "Medicare for all" plan, Biden said, “My plan for health care costs $740 billion dollars, it doesn’t cost $30 trillion dollars. $3.4 trillion a year, turns out, is twice what the entire federal budget is, that’s before it exists now, without interest on the debt."

Biden's math is off. While Medicare For All could cost $3.4 trillion a year, according to one estimate, the federal budget is larger: in 2018, the federal budget was $4.1 trillion, including $300 billion going toward interest. 

Additionally, Biden's campaign estimates the cost of the candidate's plan at $750 billion over a decade, while estimates have put the cost of Sanders' plan at $32 trillion or more over a decade.

NBC/WSJ poll shows split on racially motivated mass shootings

Carrie Dann

In August, after the El Paso attack, the NBC/WSJ poll asked Americans how worried they are that "the United States will experience another mass shooting or attack by white nationalists, targeting people based on their color or country of origin." 

Among all Americans, 68 percent said they were very or fairly worried. 

But there's a huge partisan divide on this question. 

Among Democratic primary voters, 91 percent said they're worried, while just 36 percent of Republican primary voters said the same. Sixty percent of Republican primary voters said they were just slightly worried or not worried at all.

Harris nicely turns tough question

Harris took a tough question on her record on crime and prosecution and pivoted it to push her newly released reform plan. 

It started with a bit of fun. After a question asking why she didn’t do more when she had the chance in California — a question that drew some applause — Harris paused and said she was glad that the question was asked.

She then touted her experience as having provided her the experience to implement real change.

Yang knows a lot of doctors? What?

Yang’s claim that "I'm Asian so I know a lot of doctors" doesn’t make sense — unless you’re going to play into Asian American stereotypes. A sick person knows a lot of doctors but no particular race gets a claim on knowing more physicians by default. 

O’Rourke endorses reparations study bill

Janell Ross

The issue of reparations surfaced again in the Democratic primary debate.

After describing the United States as a nation that built its wealth and ongoing economic dominance through the exploitation of of slaves, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke told debate viewers he would, as president, back a bill introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, in January. It calls for a commission to consider reparations proposals.

Democratic support for Obamacare hit new high this month

Castro makes auto-enrollment in health care an issue

Benjy Sarlin

Castro and Biden got into a spat over whether their plans would automatically enroll people in a public plan. Biden insisted his plan did, and it does include a feature that automatically enrolls people in a public option who interact with anti-poverty programs like SNAP, but it’s not as far-reaching as some of the other public option plans in this regard.

Medicare For All, backed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, would automatically cover all residents. 

Debate devolves into a fight about fighting

After Castro took some seriously strong shots at Biden, Buttigieg jumped in to say moments like that were why the debates were becoming unwatchable. Castro hit back, saying that’s what elections are about. Then Klobuchar jumped in to side with Buttigieg.

Anyways, at the end of this, Yang had a chance to speak. He said everyone on stage has a better plan than Trump and, pointing to his own health care knowledge, said, "I’m Asian, so I know a lot of doctors," as part of his answer.

Castro hits Biden hard: 'Are you forgetting what you were saying?'

Dartunorro Clark

Castro excoriated Biden during a debate over the former vice president’s health care plan, telling him that he is not carrying the legacy of President Obama by not expanding access to more Americans, basically building off of Obamacare.

This was a standout moment because Castro has been stagnant in the polls. He was particularly strong hitting Biden, even reminding people of Biden’s gaffes by saying, "Are you forgetting what you were saying?"

Meghan McCain responds after Harris invokes ‘late great John McCain’

Meghan McCain responded after Harris paid homage to her late father, Sen. John McCain, while she spoke about the Affordable Care Act.

Fact check: Studies show Medicare For All costs less than the current system

Sanders, amid a contentious back-and-forth about "Medicare for All" with Biden and Warren, said that "every study done shows that 'Medicare for All' is the most cost-effective approach for providing health care to every man woman and child in this country."

This isn't true. A handful of studies do show Sanders' plan to be a more cost-effective alternative to the current system — but even more indicate the opposite. Sanders’ Medicare for All plan would insure an additional 28 million people, so it’d be a huge selling point if it was also cheaper than the current system. 

But of five major Medicare for All studies reviewed in detail by The New York Times, just two found overall health care expenditures would be lower than current costs. And what's more, there are sizable variables that could affect the math should his plan be implemented.

Disunity over unity

After Castro goes after Biden, Buttigieg calls for unity. Castro hits back, saying this is how debates go. Klobuchar says a house divided cannot stand. 

Game on.

No mention of HBCUs

Dartunorro Clark

The ABC debate is hosted at Texas Southern University, a historically black college, but no candidate has mentioned it despite the fact that both Harris and Warren released plans to pour billions into black colleges, which have been struggling financially. The other candidates have also made supportive statements about protecting historically black colleges and universities.

Bill Weld uses Houston faceoff to renew call for GOP debate

As Democrats tangle tonight on the debate stage, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who is running against President Trump in the Republican primary, is piggybacking off the event to call for primary debates in his own party.

So far, Trump has shown no indication that he'll debate the three Republicans running against him. And a handful of state Republican parties are shuttering their primaries, arguing that none of Trump's challengers are legitimate enough to necessitate a primary.

Harris turning focus onto Trump

Harris, who made her name in the first debate (and got a significant bump) for going after Biden, has stayed away from attacking Biden and other Dems in her opening statement and initial answer in this ongoing healthcare debate, hitting Trump both times. Among the other candidates on the stage, Trump’s name has barely been whispered.

Biden, Warren, Sanders spar on 'Medicare for All' versus public option

Benjy Sarlin

The candidates are going at it on heath care again, with Vice President Joe Biden talking up his $750 billion plan to add a public option for insurance and boost subsidies, versus a single-payer "Medicare for All" plan backed by Sanders and Warren that replaces all existing private plans and eliminates premiums, deductibles, and almost all out-of-pocket expenses. 

Biden challenged his rivals on cost: Sanders and Warren haven’t fully said how they’ll pay for their version, but Sanders puts the price tag at $30 trillion to $40 trillion over 10 years. But they argued the overall savings for most families, factoring in their current expenses on health care, will go down even if taxes go up elsewhere. 

Klobuchar, Buttigieg and O’Rourke challenged them on disruption, saying it would force people out of their employer insurance. Sanders and Warren argue it will provide better access to their doctors by consolidating the current system into one comprehensive  plan. 

Want to learn more about Medicare for All? We have an issue page with an explainer and all the candidates positions here

And if you want to learn a little more about where Biden’s plan and other candidates’ fit within the various public option proposals in the race, check our coverage here.

Healthcare for all, not a new idea

Janell Ross

Americans have debated the merits of universal health care for nearly 75 years.

President Harry Truman, a Democrat, first proposed health care for all in 1945

Sanders' scratchy voice a result of busy campaign schedule campaign says

Shaquille Brewster

The Sanders campaign acknowledges that the Vermont senator has a hoarse voice tonight, something that reporters covering him first noticed on Monday in Denver. However, they say that he is not sick and that the hoarseness is a result of a busy schedule last weekend when he had four visits to college campuses and bars through Iowa.

Klobuchar slams Bernie: 'I read the bill'

Dartunorro Clark

Klobuchar got a round of applause after she went after Sanders over his health care plan. She slammed Bernie for saying he "wrote the damn bill" by saying she actually "read the bill," noting that under his bill a lot of Americans could lose coverage. 

Castro's blue Texas just a dream?

Janell Ross

The possibility of turning Texas blue was a key point in former Housing Secretary Julián Castro’s opening statement. 

Texas, a state dominated by Democrats until the 1990s, has not always been a Republican stronghold. But a wave of conservative victories transformed the state into one where Republicans have long held almost all state-wide offices and the majority in the state’s legislature.

However, the state’s demographic makeup — nearly 60 percent of the state’s population is Latino, black or Asian — and the Republican Party’s swing toward a more extreme right has renewed hope that Texas could become a swing state or even reliably Democratic in the future.

Warren praises Obama during health care pitch

NBC News

Your bathroom break schedule

If you’re planning to be with us for the long haul, here’s a few hints on when you can take a break, courtesy of New York Times media reporter Michael Grynbaum.

We're live-tracking all the attacks at the debate tonight

NBC News is tracking how many times each candidate attacks, criticizes or calls out another candidate during the debate. The graphic also indexes the number of times the candidates attack Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Wall Street and corporations, and the “ultra-rich.”

Candidates take aim at Trump in opening remarks

Dartunorro Clark

Castro, Klobuchar, Harris and Sanders all used the first moments of their opening remarks to talk directly to the camera about President Donald Trump. Castro and Sanders called him dangerous, Klobuchar said he’s “running our country like  a game show," and Harris made the case for prosecuting Trump and quipped, “Now you can go back to watching Fox News,” aiming her remarks at Trump who has weighed in on the past debates.

Unity among the candidates... for now

Opening statements have stressed the need to defeat Trump and touched on the themes the candidates share. 

But with all the frontrunners on the stage together for the first time, we’ll see if that feeling of unity can last for three full hours.

Warren claps after Harris' Trump remarks

NBC News

Yang's big surprise: explained

Andrew Yang's promised "big" surprise at Thursday night's debate could be huge for 10 families.

The entrepreneur — who'd vowed to do something never before seen on a debate stage — went full Oprah, promising to pay $1,000 a month to 10 random American families for a year.

"I’m going to do something unprecedented tonight,” Yang said. “My campaign is now going to give a Freedom Dividend of $1,000 a month to 10 American families for an entire year, someone watching this at home right now.”

The recipient will be chosen in an online raffle.

"Freedom dividends" are the linchpin of Yang's surprising campaign — he's proposing that the government should pay every American over the age of 18 a non string attached $1,000 a month.

Klobuchar opens with swing at Warren

Klobuchar appeared to take the first indirect swipe at Warren in her opening statement Thursday.

Projecting herself as a choice for Democrats who want something other than the ideological extremes, Klobuchar played off of Warren's "I’ve got a plan for that" refrain without mentioning her fellow senator by name.

"I’ve got a better way," Klobuchar said.

Mayor Pete jokes about Yang’s cash giveaway

Buttigieg took a brief pause after Yang announced his contest to give $12,000 to 10 Americans, before joking, “It’s original, I’ll give you that.” Just beforehand, Klobuchar was seen giggling after Yang’s announcement.

Yang has repeatedly cited Alaska as his model for UBI

Yang announced a contest on stage for 10 people to win $12,000. In campaigning, he's repeatedly cited Alaska's model for "Universal Basic Income" as evidence that his "Freedom Dividend" would work. Here's more on that.

Beto centers opening statement on El Paso shooting

O’Rourke made August’s El Paso shooting central to his opening statement. Taking place in his hometown, the tragedy has played a major role in his campaign over the past month.