WESTERVILLE, Ohio (AP) — The question was inevitable. Elizabeth Warren’s answer was the same. And her rivals seized on it.
For the second consecutive debate, Warren refused to say whether middle-class Americans would pay higher taxes under her proposed “Medicare for All” plan. It was a glaring dodge for a candidate who has risen to the top of the Democratic field by unveiling detailed policy proposals and selling them with a folksy flair.
And it was one of nearly half a dozen issues on which Warren found herself defending the broad ambition she has laid out to remake the American economy and rebalance the nation’s wealth. More moderate candidates, including Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, cast Warren as unrealistic and vague.
How Warren handles that criticism, which was abundant Tuesday and is likely to escalate in the coming weeks, will be a central test of whether she can maintain her standing.
“Warren has done a good job at remaining steady despite the arrows in her direction, but she is still missing answers to core questions about her plans,” said Bill Burton, a Democratic strategist who worked for former President Barack Obama.
While Warren has surged into the upper tier of candidates with former Vice President Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, her liberal, government-funded policies have become subject to added scrutiny, prompting concerns about whether her views are out of the mainstream and would imperil Democrats’ chances in the general election against President Donald Trump.
Warren’s more moderate Democratic rivals sought to make that case aggressively in Tuesday’s debate in Ohio.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke suggested she was too focused on tearing people down. New York businessman Andrew Yang said her signature wealth tax has failed across Europe. Biden said she was being vague on the cost of her signature plans.
Indeed, it was her refusal to clarify how she would pay for her government overhaul of health care that drew the most sustained criticism from a range of candidates.
“Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything but this,” said Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. “I don’t understand why you believe the only way to deliver affordable insurance to everybody is to obliterate private plans.”
Minnesota Sen. Klobuchar said Warren’s obfuscating was all the more obvious because Bernie Sanders — whose Medicare for All bill Warren supports — has conceded that middle-class taxes would go up, though he contends the increases would be offset by lower health care costs.
“At least Bernie’s being honest here,” Klobuchar said. “I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that. We owe it to the American people.”
Again and again, Warren fell back to a practiced line, promising overall costs wouldn’t go up on the middle class.
“Costs will go down,” she insisted over and over.
Warren’s advisers insist overall health care costs are the more salient issue at play and grouse that focusing on the policy’s impact on taxes is an oversimplification.
Yet Warren’s resistance to spelling out what taxes would look like under her proposal suggests she sees political risk — both in the primary and in a general election — in going on the record in favoring a tax hike.
Republicans quickly pounced on her repeated sidestepping in Tuesday’s debate.
“Elizabeth Warren is lying. Period,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted. “Taxes would go up on EVERYONE to fund this socialist government takeover of health care. Bernie admits it. Why can’t she?”
Trump has used Warren’s and Sanders’ liberal positions to cast the entire Democratic field as socialists, seeking to appeal to moderate Republicans and independents who may be turned off by the president but are wary of pricey, government-run policies.
Trump’s campaign flew a banner over the Ohio debate that read: “Socialism destroys Ohio jobs. Vote Trump.”
The pressure on Warren from within her own party reflects a broader challenge for Democrats as they work through the messy process of unifying behind one candidate to take on Trump next year. Many Democratic voters like her calls for big, bold ideas. But they fear she might be too liberal to attract the broad coalition needed to deny Trump a second term.
Warren’s allies concede that her campaign is a work in progress.
“Elizabeth Warren was treated like the front-runner,” said Adam Green, a top Warren supporter and co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, adding that she showed strength in the face of aggressive attacks.
He added, “I expect those skills to be more on display in future debates as she grows into a front-runner status.”