BY Patrick Svitek
HOUSTON — Julián Castro struck a nerve Thursday night — and he’s not saying sorry.
In sharply questioning rival Joe Biden’s memory, the Democratic presidential candidate brought to the fore simmering concerns about the 76-year-old former vice president’s fitness for office. And while Castro has sought to keep the spotlight on the policy dispute that fueled the moment, he held firm Friday on the overall exchange.
The tense interrogation, which came during a health care exchange at the third primary debate here, divided other candidates, with at least one saying Castro raised a legitimate issue and two more expressing unease with the topic.
In the latter category was Castro’s fellow Texan, Beto O’Rourke, who felt the wrath of Castro in the first debate and said Friday morning he “wasn’t really excited by” how Castro handled Biden. In a CNN interview, O’Rourke equated Castro’s questioning with the “pettiness, the name-calling, the small-ball politics” that O’Rourke said will not defeat President Donald Trump and unite the country.
“Look, if you’ve got a policy difference with Joe Biden, by all means, let’s air it at the debate, but that kind of personal attack I don’t think is what we need right now and is insufficient to the challenges we face,” O’Rourke said.
The blowup came as Castro criticized Biden’s health care plan, saying it would fall short of the goal of universal coverage because it requires people to buy in. After Biden denied that, Castro let it rip.
“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Castro asked, “Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? I mean, I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you’re saying they don’t have to buy in. You’re forgetting that.”
A short time earlier in the debate, Biden did make a reference to certain certain people being able to buy in to his plan, but there seemed to be more nuance than Castro implied. Biden first said “anyone who can’t afford it gets automatically enrolled in the Medicare-type option we have.” He later said that if Americans lose their job and the insurance that comes with it, “you automatically can buy into this.”
In the immediate aftermath of the debate, Biden’s campaign suggested that Castro had not learned from the first two debates that taking “personal cheap shots” at Biden has not worked for other contenders. Castro disputed the notion it was a personal attack, seeking to emphasize the broader policy debate they were having.
Castro continued to stand his ground Friday morning in media appearances and a fundraising email that told supporters he was being “viciously attacked” for fighting for them in the debate.
“I had a critical choice to make on the debate stage last night,” Castro wrote. “I could either play it safe and give Vice President Biden a free pass like everyone else. Or I could speak up, challenge the conversation, and demand answers for you and your family.”
Biden’s campaign sent its own email to supporters saying Castro “got it wrong” and that the primary “should be decided on who can deliver for the American people, not who can throw the lowest blows (we already have a President who does that).”
The one candidate who offered some cover to Castro was U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
“There’s a lot of people concerned about Joe Biden’s ability to carry the ball across the end line without fumbling,” Booker told CNN shortly after the debate. “And I think Castro has some really legitimate concerns about, ‘Can he be someone in a long, grueling campaign that can get the ball over the line?’ and he has every right to call that out.”
At the same time, Booker added, “I do think that tone and tenor is really important, that we can respect Vice President Biden and disagree with him.”
The level of at least discomfort with Castro’s aggressive tack was more palpable among other hopefuls. Another rival of the two men, Amy Klobuchar, told CNN she found Castro’s interrogation “so personal and so unnecessary,” suggesting it was “something that Donald Trump might tweet out.”
Biden himself has not weighed in yet on the Castro controversy. He was spending Friday raising money in southeast Texas, first at an event in Houston and then at one in Beaumont.