ATLANTA — Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden proclaimed himself the nominee Republicans fear the most Wednesday night as the candidates in the Democratic presidential field competed over who was the best person to go up against President Trump.
With the impeachment inquiry roiling Washington, Mr. Biden said the one thing that has become clear after four days of public hearings is that Mr. Trump is scared to face him and Russian President Vladimir Putin fears facing him in the White House.
“Donald Trump doesn’t want me to be the nominee,” he declared, setting that out as the bar a nominee must meet.
But Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont warned Democrats against letting the impeachment proceedings distract them from bigger goals.
“He is likely the most corrupt president in the modern history of America,” Mr. Sanders said. “But we cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump. If we are, you know what? We’re going to lose the election.”
He and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said voters are looking for more than a change in party; they want the kinds of massive policy changes such as higher taxes and a “Medicare for All” health care program.
“I think the way we achieve our goals and bring our country together is we talk about the things that unite us,” said Ms. Warren, touting her “two cents wealth tax” as a way to fund her hefty portfolio of proposals, including free college and canceling student loan debts.
Mr. Biden said that wouldn’t be attractive to the voters the party needs to reach.
“The fact is the vast majority of Democrats do not support Medicare for All,” Mr. Biden said. He added that the plan wouldn’t even clear the Democratic-controlled House, much less the Republican-led Senate.
Mr. Biden said he is the best person to expand Democrats’ numbers in Congress and added that he has led bipartisan coalitions during more than three decades in public office. He also said he’s the best to take the reins on the world stage, too, saying “I know every major world leader.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar said what Democrats should really be looking for is someone who can win in areas where Mr. Trump ran strong in 2016.
The Minnesota senator said she’s got broad appeal — “I’m the one who’s been able to win every red and purple congressional district” — and said that even extends to former lovers. She said she’s raised more money from ex-boyfriends than any other candidate.
Ms. Klobuchar said she and other female candidates are being penalized for their gender, but said that’s short-sighted: “If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every day!”
She had previously criticized Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, saying if he was a woman, he’d be struggling even worse than her own campaign. Instead, Mr. Buttigieg has shot to the top of the polls in Iowa.
The mayor said in Wednesday’s debate that Democrats see him as a unifying candidate, with military experience and a Midwest approach.
“In order to defeat this president, we need somebody who can go toe-to-toe that actually comes from the kinds of communities he appeals to,” the mayor said.
In one of the more pointed exchanges, the moderators pitted Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii against Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, who accused the congresswoman of having “buddied up” to Mr. Trump and his former political strategist Stephen K. Bannon, including securing a meeting at Trump Tower.
“And then spends full-time during the course of this campaign, again, criticizing the Democratic Party,” Ms. Harris said.
“What we need on the stage in November is someone who has the ability to win, and by that we need someone on that stage who has the ability to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump and someone who has the ability to rebuild the Obama coalition and bring the party and the nation together,” she said.
Ms. Gabbard shot back that Ms. Harris is trafficking in “lies and smears and innuendoes.”
“She cannot challenge the substance of the argument that I’m making, the leadership and the change that I’m seeking to bring in our foreign policy,” she said.
The debate, hosted by NBC and The Washington Post, was a disjointed affair, with the moderators leaping clumsily from subject to subject.
One question about pardoning Mr. Trump, which, despite host Rachel Maddow’s best efforts, produced no real disagreement between Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden, gave way to a battery of questions on child care and family leave.
Mr. Biden stumbled even before the debate kicked off. His campaign blasted out an email to supporters saying he “made you proud” in the debate, which had yet to begin.
“I’m leaving the fifth Democratic debate now,” says the email, which is signed by Mr. Biden. “I hope I made you proud out there and I hope I made it clear to the world why our campaign is so important.”
The campaign acknowledged its blunder an hour later.
“We know Joe is going to make us proud tonight. We were just so excited for it that we accidentally hit send too soon,” the campaign said.
The debate followed a dramatic but confusing day of testimony on Capitol Hill from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a key figure in Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
Mr. Sondland testified that he figured there was a quid pro quo requiring Ukraine to commit to Trump-sought investigations in exchange for freeing up military assistance. But the ambassador couldn’t say who told him there was a quid pro quo — and in fact said Mr. Trump explicitly told him there was none.
Democrats say Mr. Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate whether Mr. Biden, while vice president, attempted to use U.S. influence to shield his son from a corruption investigation in the Eastern European country.
There are mixed signs as to whether Mr. Biden’s campaign is hurting as a result of repeated mentions of his name in the impeachment probe.
Mr. Biden has maintained a lead in national polls as well as in Nevada and South Carolina but has lost the top spot in recent Iowa surveys to Mr. Buttigieg.
The mayor held a 10-point lead over Mr. Biden and Ms. Warren in a St. Anselm College poll in New Hampshire, though most other surveys show Ms. Warren tops the field there.
The sniping between Mr. Biden and Ms. Warren has intensified. The senator has suggested that the former vice president is too conservative for the Democratic Party. Mr. Biden, meanwhile, has called Ms. Warren “elitist” for her pursuit of “Medicare for All” as a health care plan.
Mr. Buttigieg has positioned himself as a moderate alternative to Ms. Warren and has distanced himself from the senator by warning that Medicare for All is too radical for most voters.
Ten candidates made the debate stage Wednesday at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, including Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey, and businessmen Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer.
That was down from the dozen Democrats on stage for the third debate.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro missed the cut, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas dropped out of the race.
Also not on stage were former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who belatedly launched a campaign this month, and former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has filed paperwork to become a candidate in some states but not performed the usual public announcement rituals.
Georgia was a strategic location for Democrats, who see signs of a resurgence for the party in the state after two decades of Republican dominance.
⦁ Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.