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WASHINGTON (CNN) — Former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders took their long-running debate over "Medicare for All" into the coronavirus crisis on Sunday, with Biden arguing that there is no time to wait for Sanders' promised "political revolution."
The two men met at a time when nerves are running high as Americans have been told to stay at home in an effort to slow the spread of novel coronavirus. Shortly before the debate, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance urging Americans to cancel or postpone in-person gatherings that consist of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks.
Sanders argued that the pandemic underscored the fragility of the US economy and said it had illuminated the massive wealth gap in America. Now is the time, he argued, to address that.
"Half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck. We got people who are struggling, working two or three jobs to put food on the table. What's going to happen to them?" Sanders said.
But Biden argued that people are "looking for results, not a revolution" and that it was not the time for massive structural change to the US economy.
The current crisis, he said, is "not going to be solved by a change in tax policy now. It's not going to be solved by how we deal with health care" and then pivoted to his plans to bring all of the government's resources to bear to halt the damage from the coronavirus pandemic.
The CNN-Univision debate, which was moved from Phoenix to CNN's Washington bureau, comes at a pivotal point in the race — following Biden's surge in the delegate count over two Super Tuesday contests.
The former vice president also made major news when he said he would choose a woman as his running mate as the veteran politician seeks to broaden his appeal and unify the Democratic Party.
"If I'm elected president, my Cabinet, my administration will look like the country and I commit that I will, in fact, appoint — pick a woman to be vice president," Biden said. "There are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow. I would pick a woman to be my vice president."
It's the first time Biden has said that he would pick a woman to be his vice president during the campaign as the former Delaware senator is on a major surge in the race, taking the lead over Sanders. In the same answer, Biden committed to picking a black woman as a Supreme Court justice during his administration.
Pressed on whether he would make the same commitment, Sanders said he would likely make the same choice.
"In all likelihood, I will," Sanders aid. "For me, it's not just nominating a woman. It is making sure that we have a progressive woman and there are progressive women out there. So my very strong tendency is to move in that direction."
Sanders also said half of his Cabinet advisers would be women and touted his agenda fighting for women, who he said are under "incredible political assault by Trump and are Republican governors across this country."
The debate underscored the very different positions the two candidates find themselves in right now as Biden has surged ahead of Sanders in delegates. Noting the youth and energy of his supporters, the Vermont senator argued that Biden would not be able to muster the kind of excitement that would be needed among his backers to take on Trump.
When pressed on why Sanders has consistently held a strong lead among Hispanic voters, Biden pointed to the results during the past two Super Tuesday contests — which allowed him to post a significant lead over Sanders after the former vice president's fourth and fifth place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"My message is resonating across the board, every single state we have been in there's been a significant turnout," Biden said.
"Let's get this straight. The energy and excitement that's taken place so far has been for me, 70% turnout increase in Virginia. I can go down the list," Biden added. "And I didn't even have the money to compete with this man in those states."
Sanders framed his coalition as a biracial, multi-generational grassroots movement.
"Joe has won more states than I have. But here's what we are winning," Sanders said. "We are winning the ideological struggle. Even states in Mississippi where Joe won a major victory. It turns out that a pretty good majority of the folks there believe in Medicare for All. That's true in almost every state in this country."
"We are winning the generational struggle. Depending on the state, we're winning people 50 years of age or younger. Big time — people 30 years of age and younger," Sanders said. "Look if I lose this thing; Joe wins — Joe, I will be there for you. But I have my doubts about how you win a general election against Trump — who will be a very, very tough opponent — unless you have energy, excitement, the largest voter turnout in history."
A surreal sight in surreal times
The extraordinary times that are gripping the world were clear from the moment the duo met on stage Sunday night.
There was no handshake. Instead with a grin, the former vice president playfully invited Sanders to exchange an elbow bump. Then they took their places at the podiums in silence — no studio audience to watch them as they stood six feet apart.
Each man detailed their plans on how to fight the virus.
The former vice president said he would make sure every state in the union had 10 places where Americans could access drive-through testing, while also engaging the Defense Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up emergency 500-bed hospital sites to triage patients. He added that he would try to swiftly deal with the economic fallout from the crisis by helping Americans cover their mortgages and allowing small businesses to borrow interest-free loans.
If he had the power to act immediately, the Vermont senator said he would move aggressively to make sure that every person in the country who becomes infected would know that they would not lose income, and assuring them that "all payments will be made." He also touted his plan for "Medicare for All."
"I want every person in this country to understand what when you get sick, you go to the doctor. When you get sick, if you have the virus, that will be paid for," Sanders said, explaining what he would want to occur under his administration.
The two men were asked how they were confronting the unique risks facing Americans their age with the coronavirus. Both candidates said they have suspended their rallies, directed their aides to work from home and have avoided shaking hands.
Sanders, who is 78 and had a heart attack last year, said he's "very careful about the people I am interacting with."
"I'm using a lot of soap and hand sanitizers to make sure that I do not get the infection," the Vermont senator said. "And I have to say, thank God right now I do not have any symptoms and I feel very grateful for that."
Biden, who is 77, pointedly noted that he does not have underlying conditions and said he was in good health.
"I wash my hands God knows how many times a day," Biden said. "I carry with me, in my bag outside here, hand sanitizer. I don't know how many times a day I use that. I make sure I don't touch my face and so on. I'm taking all the precautions we're telling everybody else to take."
Sanders puts Biden on the hot seat
Looking for a resurgence in the race for the Democratic nomination, Sanders aggressively challenged Biden's lengthy Senate record, suggesting the former vice president had acted for political expediency instead of doing the right thing earlier in his career.
An hour into the debate, Sanders reeled off a list of difficult votes that both candidates took in the Senate, noting that he and Biden voted differently on the Defense of Marriage Act and the bankruptcy bill.
"I voted against the war in Iraq, which was also a tough vote. You voted for it," Sanders said. "I voted against the disastrous trade agreements like NAFTA, which cost this country over 4 million good-paying jobs. You voted for it. I voted against the Hyde Amendment, which denies low-income women the right to get an abortion. You have consistently voted for it. I don't know what your position is today. ... We can argue about the merits of the bill. It takes courage sometimes to vote and do the right thing."
Biden, who defended his record on LGBTQ rights by noting that he was one of the first major political figures to say publicly that he supported gay marriage, faulted Sanders for voting against the Brady Bill, which contained measures to try to prevent gun violence like enhanced background checks.
He also noted that Sanders voted against legislation that prevented gun manufacturers from being sued.
"He voted for that years ago. He says it was a mistake now. I prepared to accept that he says it's a mistake. The question is what do we do from this point on?" Biden said.
Sanders pointed to his consistency, which is what has endeared him most to his supporters.
"We can argue this or that bill, but what I'm suggesting is that in this time of crisis when we are living in a really, really unsettling world — economically, from a health care perspective with the coronavirus — the people of America know my record," Sanders said.
Biden's priority, however, as he has surged ahead in the delegate count, is to try and persuade Sanders supporters to back him if he becomes the Democratic nominee, the former vice president tried to find areas of common ground with Sanders on Sunday night.
"Character of the nation is on the ballot," Biden said. "Sen. Sanders and I both agree we need, health care should be a right, not a privilege. We both agree we have to deal with student debt. We both agree we have to deal with education and access to education. We both agree that we have a new green deal to deal with the existential threat that faces humanity. We disagree on the detail of how we do it. But we don't disagree on the principle. We fundamentally disagree with this president on everything."
Sanders also argued that Biden's climate change plan was insufficient to address the magnitude of the climate crisis. CNN moderator Jake Tapper noted that Biden has proposed spending $1.7 trillion to confront climate change, which is $14 trillion less than Sanders would spend.
"It is ambitious enough to tackle the crisis," Biden said, outlining his 13-point plan. But Sanders disagreed.
"All well and good, but nowhere near enough," Sanders said. "We started this debate talking about a war-like situation in terms of the coronavirus. We said we have to act accordingly. You said it. I said it. We have to act dramatically, boldly, if going to save lives in this country and around the world. I look at climate change in exactly the same way."
This is a breaking story and will be updated.
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