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Democratic voters in Miami differ on whether candidates should attack each other in debate

Miami -- Ahead of the first presidential primary debates this week, some Democratic voters here differed on what approach the candidates should be striking on stage -- whether they should criticize their primary opponents or to save their jabs for President Trump.

In dozens of interviews with CBS News, most of the Democratic voters opined that trying to attract attention by way of attack, at least in these first debates, could be ineffective.

"If you're on the offensive attacking people, whatever your campaign is representing probably isn't that strong," 27-year-old Miami Dade College student Akeem Carr said, "It's like gossip." 

Several teachers at an education town hall in North Miami were encouraging candidates instead to draw constructive contrasts between their fellow debaters.

"That's what we teach the kids in school --'I disagree with you' or 'I agree with you on this but not this,'" second-grade teacher Ann Olivier, 59, said.

Some worried that the blows landed in the primaries would become fodder for the president in the general election. Debate-night fights could just "provide ammunition for the Republicans and for Fox News," Miami Beach resident Daniel Kroae said. 

"[Trump] is running roughshod over our Constitution and our democracy, and there's no place for infighting within in our own party because our party is so diverse--color, race, religion--we are a wide umbrella of people, and for a short time we have to agree to get along," Kriste DeLane, 50, said. 

In the first Democratic debate in 2015 it was a moment solidarity that made the headlines when Bernie Sanders, who was running in the primaries against Hillary Clinton, stepped in and defended the former secretary of state on the use of her private email server, an issue which came up persistently during her campaign.

"Let me say something that may not be great politics, but I think the secretary is right. And that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.

In these primaries, Washington Governor Jay Inslee sounded a similar note. "I'm sure people will share different viewpoints, but I know we're respectful of ideas," he said.

However, when CBS News asked former Rep. Beto O'Rourke if it would be appropriate to criticize rivals on stage, he said, "I guess, you know, in politics and in a democracy, uh, anything goes." He went on to say he'd be focusing on the "future and how we ensure that this country works for every single one of us."

There were a few Democratic voters who agreed with O'Rourke's "anything goes" mantra and said they want their party's squabbles aired as soon as possible.  

"If it's all 'kumbaya,' we don't get anyplace," said Marcia Leskowitz, 65. 

"Their current issues are fair game," military program analyst Tramario Adams, 33, said. "If you can't defend your position it looks bad on you. So some attacks are okay as there aren't many things I would call a 'low jab' or a 'punch below the belt.'"

This more abrasive approach was on display during the first Democratic debate in 2007, when former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, one of eight candidates on stage, quipped about the competence of those alongside him.

"It's like going into the Senate. You know the first time you get there you're all excited—'My God, how did I ever get here?'—then about six months later you say, 'How the hell did the rest of them get here?' Gravel said. 

The 89-year-old former senator -- who is also running in 2020 but did not qualify for the debate stage this round -- said he was "terrified" of how even the "top tier" presidential candidates would conduct foreign policy from the White House -- including then-Sen. Obama and Hillary Clinton.

"I gotta tell you after standing up with them, some of these people frighten me!" Gravel chided his fellow Democrats as several laughed. "They frighten me!"

Biden, who also ran in 2008, was not exempt from criticism. ""Oh Joe, I'll include you, too. You have a certain arrogance—you want to tell the Iraqis how to run their country. I gotta tell you we oughta just plain get out," Gravel said as Biden smiled.

Now with 24 Democrats running for president, a few of the lesser-known challengers could seize an opportunity for confrontation, a play encouraged by now 89-year-old Gravel, who told CBS News in a phone interview on Tuesday that while he "did not want to get into the [presidential] race" he was convinced to jump into the fray again to advocate against the military industrial complex. 

"I have no problem calling out people's shortcomings and disregards," Gravel noted and mentioned if he was on the debate stage this week he would call out both former Vice President Joe Biden again for his initial support of the Iraq War and Mayor Pete Buttigieg for his criticism of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. 

While Gravel did not meet the Democratic National Committee's qualification standards for this week's debate, he said he was encouraged by his campaign's more than 45,000 donors, giving him hope that he might be able to join the next debate in July.

From his home in California, Gravel is hoping to see the candidates really engage on stage this week.

"Here we have gone through all of these years and it is still the same old, same old. And that's what the Democratic Party is trying to deliver right now is by keeping everybody quiet...same old, same old." 

Attitudes can change during the course of the primaries, though. Sanders might have acted chivalrously in that first debate with Clinton, but at another, he hit her hard over a series of paid speeches she had made to Goldman Sachs.

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