MIAMI (AP) — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders admitted that his plans for universal health care and free college would require a tax increase on America's middle class as a fight for the direction of the Democratic Party played out in the opening moments of Thursday night's presidential debate.
The concession came as Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, defended his calls for dramatic policy solutions to address growing inequality.
"Yes they will pay more in taxes but less in health care for what they get," Sanders said.
A day after the first wave of 10 Democrats debated, a second 10 faced each other and the nation for the first time in a prime-time confrontation that underscored differences along lines of race, gender, generation and ideology that are starting to shape the party's search for a nominee to take on President Donald Trump.
Bernie Sanders and wife, Jane
Bernie Sanders and wife, Jane
Former Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders hugs his wife Jane after making a motion to suspend the rules and nominate Hillary Clinton as the Demcoratic presidential nominee at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 26, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders gets a kiss from his wife Jane as he addresses supporters following the closing of the polls in the California presidential primary in Santa Monica, California, U.S., June 7, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and his wife Jane wave to the audience during a rally in Vallejo, California, May 18, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
PORTSMOUTH, NH - With Jane Sanders, Democratic Presumptive Nominee for President former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends a rally with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) at Portsmouth High School Gymnasium in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on Tuesday, July 12, 2016. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Jane O'Meara Sanders walks on the floor during the third day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 27, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. / AFP / Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders kisses his wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, at a rally in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, United States October 14, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (C) hugs his wife Jane Sanders (L) while actress Susan Sarandon surveys the overflow room at a campaign rally in Fairfield, Iowa January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' wife Jane (R) waves to the crowd as Sanders acknowledges her and his step daughters Carina (L) and Heather (C) as Sanders addresses his final campaign rally before the Iowa Caucus at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa January 31, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Jane Sanders, wife of Vermont Senator and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, listens during an interview following a campaign event in Fort Madison, Iowa, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. In advance of Monday's Iowa caucuses, the first electoral contest of the presidential primaries, Jane Sanders has ventured out often on her own, sometimes with multiple events the same day. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, walks with his wife Jane Sanders ahead of the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015. With Vice President Joe Biden officially out of the presidential race, the nation's first nominating contest between front-runner Hillary Clinton and Sanders is gaining steam, according to a new Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
FLORENCE, SOUTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 12: With his wife Jane O'Meara, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) prepares to speak at a Florence Town Hall Meeting in an arena in Florence, South Carolina on Saturday September 12, 2015. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Discover More Like This
BACK TO SLIDE
Thursday's showdown featured four of the five strongest candidates — according to early polls, at least.
While the discussion was largely civil to begin, just beneath the surface a fierce debate simmered over the party's future.
Sanders has pulled his party to the left on key issues, calling for a political revolution that would transform the private health care system into a government-financed one and mandate a redistribution of wealth.
His appeal relies on emotion, often anger. He stood alongside former Vice President Joe Biden, who preaches pragmatism and relative moderation.
And they represented only two of 10 views on the stage Thursday night.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California Sen. Kamala Harris were among the better known candidates in the next tier. Also on stage: Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, New York businessman Andrew Yang, California Rep. Eric Swalwell and author and social activist Marianne Williamson.
The showdown played out in Florida, a general election battleground that could well determine whether Trump wins a second term next year.
If nothing else, Thursday's slate highlights the diversity of the Democratic Party's 2020 class.
Buttigieg, a 37-year-old gay former military officer, is four decades younger than Sanders, and has been framing his candidacy as a call for generational change in his party. Harris is the only African American woman to qualify for the presidential debate stage. Any of the three women featured Thursday night would be the first ever elected president.
Yet Biden and Sanders have received far more attention and shown higher standing than their less-experienced rivals.
The party will have to decide whether it wants a candidate based on resume over aspiration.