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Recap: For 2 Hours Biden, Sanders Debate On CNN

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It started with an elbow bump. With no other candidates onstage and the CDC recommending a distance of 6 feet to separate them, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders had two hours to debate their differences on CNN last night. The former vice president also made an announcement.

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JOE BIDEN: There are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow. I would pick a woman to be my vice president.

MARTIN: NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid is with us this morning. Hi, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So obviously, coronavirus was the topic that was front and center. What did we learn, though, about each candidate through that prism of this outbreak?

KHALID: You're right. I mean, it was, Rachel, the main issue of the night. And the candidates, we should point out, were united in their criticism of just how poorly they felt President Trump has been handling this situation. But to me, the ways in which they disagreed perhaps distilled the differences between these two candidates, between these two men, more than any other issue in any previous debate we have seen.

Bernie Sanders sees this crisis as a health care crisis. And so he's been arguing that this is why the country needs "Medicare for All." That's his signature issue. It would be a free, government-run health care coverage system for every American. Joe Biden pointed out that Italy has a single-payer health system, and that did not prevent an outbreak of coronavirus there. He emphasized that what's needed right now is immediate action, and experience matters. And given the Ebola crisis during President Obama's time, he has that experience.

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BIDEN: People are looking for results, not a revolution. They want to deal with the results they need right now. And we can do that by making sure that we make everybody whole who has been so badly hurt in terms of their - they lose the job, in terms of not having the ability to care for their children, in terms of the health care costs that they have relating to this crisis. We can make them whole now.

MARTIN: So, Asma, this was the 11th Democratic debate. We've seen so many of these. You have covered all of them. Setting aside the dramatic atmospherics, in that there weren't any of the usual trappings - there was no live audience; they were just in a television studio - what stood out to you seeing it down to just these two candidates?

KHALID: Well, the diversity on the stage was gone. There are clear ideological differences between Biden and Sanders. And to me, those were center stage last night.

It increasingly seems that Joe Biden has a path to the nomination. I mean, that's sort of numerically what folks are saying looking at the delegates and the map moving forward. But Bernie Sanders was there to press his issues, and that was even on issues where Biden is coming around to some of his ideas, like tuition-free college.

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BERNIE SANDERS: Four years ago, when I said that public colleges and universities should be tuition-free, people were saying, Bernie, that's a radical idea. Well, you got states and cities and counties all over the country that are moving in that direction. And I'm glad that Joe is on board. But what leadership is about is going forward when it's not popular.

KHALID: So, Rachel, I feel like, you know, Sanders really needed some big moments in this last debate. Did he get it? You know, I'm not so sure. And I'm not really sure that this debate has substantively changed the status of this race. But with so little alternative campaigning - there are no rallies, no door-knocking - this was one final chance for the candidates to make their pitch and try to change the narrative ahead of Tuesday's votes.

MARTIN: So in the runup to the debate, Biden said he - I mean, he's trying to reach out, right? He said he would adopt some of Bernie Sanders' policies, some of Elizabeth Warren's policies. So we've seen Joe Biden in the days before the debate say he was going to reach out to these other camps, adopting some of Bernie Sanders' policies, Elizabeth Warren's policies. And then he went on in the debate to say he was going to pick a woman as his running mate. Explain what all of that adds up to.

KHALID: Yeah. You know, really, Rachel, this comes down to the fact that he is trying to unite a party if he is the nominee. You know, I do think there are questions about, will young voters come on board? That was a concern for the Democratic Party in 2016. He's trying to show that if he is the Democratic nominee, he is willing to bring in folks within the progressive tent. You know, again, there's a question of whether that will actually all transpire.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Asma Khalid for us. Thank you. We appreciate it.

KHALID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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