Democratic debate opens with impeachment: 'The president is not king in America'

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Several candidates called for Trump's impeachment in the opening moments of Thursday's debate.

Support for Donald Trump's impeachment and criticism of Trump's economy dominated the early moments of Thursday night's debate with the Democratic Party's leading presidential contenders.

The Democrats' debate — the sixth in the cycle — was set in the heart of the holiday season just a day after the House's historic vote to impeach Trump, raising the prospect that it may draw the smallest audience yet. But the stakes were not small in the broader tug-of-war between passionate progressives and pragmatic moderates who are battling over the party's positions on core issues like health care, immigration, education and trade. 

Despite the potential for intraparty discord, the early moments of Thursday's debate highlighted the Democrats' shared criticism of the Republican president's vision for America. 

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"The president is not king in America," said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is preparing to serve as a juror as Trump's impeachment shifts from the House to the Senate. Alluding to President Richard Nixon, she added, "If the president claims that he is so innocent, then why doesn't he have all the president's men testify?"

Former Vice President Joe Biden knocked Trump's argument that less than half of Americans support his removal from office.

"He's dumbing down the presidency beyond what I even thought he would do," Biden said. "We need to restore the integrity of the presidency."

The candidates also railed against Trump's economy, despite outward indicators that the economy is doing well.

The U.S. unemployment rate stands at a half-century low of 3.5%, backed by consistently strong job gains in recent months that have largely squelched fears of a recession that had taken hold over the summer.

"This economy is not working for most of us," said Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

"The middle class is getting killed," Biden added.

Seven candidates shared the stage, but Elizabeth Warren and Buttigieg enter the night at the center of the high-stakes clash. 

Warren, a 70-year-old Massachusetts senator, has fought for transformative policies to limit corporate influence on the nation's political and economic systems for more than a decade. Buttigieg, 37, has emerged as a strong, if surprising, face of the party's more centrist wing as he navigates his connections to corporate America, both in his work history and as a presidential fundraiser. 

While Warren and Buttigieg will be among Thursday's stars, the diversity — or lack thereof — onstage will also play prominently. The Democratic field is marked by wide differences in age, geography and wealth, but Thursday's group won't feature a black or Latino candidate for the first time this year. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who is Asian American, will be on stage. 

The state of play on the ground in California has largely mirrored national trends, with former Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Warren clustered at the top of the field, followed by Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Yang and billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer.