Ten candidates took to the stage on Thursday for the first single-night debate of the Democratic presidential primary race. Unfortunately, the debate began on well-trod ground: fighting over the scope of various candidates’ health care plans, which have been extensively and laboriously covered on the previous nights. And the debate failed to focus much on foreign policy, leaving the topic largely to the end, one of the areas where a president has the greatest ability to act unilaterally.
That said, the debate did highlight some of each candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. Here’s my (necessarily subjective!) take on who came away the strongest and who left weaker:
- Kamala Harris — Harris started off the debate strong, by pulling out of the doldrums of a tedious three-way health care argument between Warren, Biden, and Sanders at the start and refocusing the discussion on President Donald Trump. He, she pointed out, is trying to take health care away from Americans, which is more important than any of the differences in policy on the Democratic debate stage. Throughout the night, she turned the debate back to Trump more than any other candidate, which set her apart and elevated her from most of the squabbles on stage. While she didn’t have a standout moment like she did in the first round of primary debates by going after Biden’s history on busing, she recovered from her stumbling in the second round and gave a powerful, cheerful performance.
- Elizabeth Warren — The Massachusetts senator continues to impress with both her policy acumen and her passionate advocacy for fighting corruption as a top priority. Recent polls have shown that Warren has continued to gain in the race, and some even show her neck-and-neck with Biden. She came off as a credible and formidable candidate standing next to the former vice president, and she deftly avoided falling into traps set by the moderators. Those who are afraid of Warren’s growing prominence will have no reason to sleep comfortable tonight.
- Cory Booker — Booker remains a major underdog in the race based on the polling, but he consistently delivers polished and focused answers in the debates. He can incorporate humor and genuine feeling into his rhetoric even while taking bold positions. The night probably hasn’t shot him into the upper-tier of the debate, but anyone watching closely will know he’s a strong player, and his status is only on the rise.
- Joe Biden — There’s not a whole lot about Biden’s campaign that appeals to me personally, but he probably gave his strongest debate performance of the primaries so far Thursday night. There were points when he seemed to get lost in his own words — particularly when he discussed the Iraq War, which he said he regretted voting for — but overall he fended off attacks and stood up for his legacy alongside President Barack Obama. If you started the night as a fan of Joe Biden, this debate probably didn’t change your mind — and as long as he’s the frontrunner, just treading water will be good enough to be a winner.
- Julián Castro — Castro actually had a number of nice moments in the debate — he should get special recognition for calling attention to China’s cruel treatment of the Uighurs — but he’ll be remembered in this performance for one thing: accusing Biden of suffering from memory loss. While Biden has had worrying moments on the campaign trail, this actually didn’t seem like one of them. Instead, it appeared that Castro used the accusation as cover for misunderstanding Biden’s health care policy. Using this attack line would draw criticism no matter the circumstances, but given that the jab about Biden’s memory was unfounded in this case, Castro just came off as needlessly hostile.
- Pete Buttigieg — Early in the Democratic primary, Pete Buttigieg rose from obscurity as the mayor of South Bend to be one of the top five candidates in the race. But he remains significantly behind the other top four, and nothing he did on the debate stage is likely to change his position. He continues to be an eloquent speaker, and he gave a particularly moving answer near the end of the night about his struggle to come out of the closet in the middle of his political career. In contrast, to say, Bernie Sanders — who I still see as appealing to his sizable fan base without expanding his support, thus leaving him neither a winner nor a loser — Buttigieg needs to find a way to use the debates to gain forward momentum if he’s going to stay relevant. He hasn’t figured out how to do that yet.
- Amy Klobuchar — The case for the candidacy of Klobuchar isn’t that hard to make in the abstract — she’s a competent midwestern lawmaker who consistently overperforms in her elections. The problem is that Klobuchar herself seems unable to make the case for herself. Her jokes onstage are awkward, her delivery is stilted, and most importantly, she presents her “moderate” positions as disappointing but necessary, which is hardly a rousing campaign slogan. If you’re a moderate Democratic voter, Klobuchar hasn’t given you a compelling reason to vote for her over, say, Biden.
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