They skirmished over health care and immigration. They largely agreed on income inequality and climate change. With Democrats eager to narrow the field, Elizabeth Warren and nine lesser-ranked candidates waged what New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called a “battle for the heart and soul of our party.”
It’s only halftime in the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 election, with 10 more candidates set to take the stage Thursday night -- including former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads in most polls. And there will be at least five more debates before the first primary vote is cast.
But Wednesday’s two-hour opening act aired nationally on NBC gave some clues about what the Democratic primary will sound like, and where the race to find a challenger to President Donald Trump is going.
Warren Steals the Spotlight
Positioned center stage, Warren monopolized the field. The Massachusetts senator, who has steadily risen in polls over the last two months, paired crisp answers and detailed policy proposals with believable outrage about key party issues. She was freed from her biggest rivals, Biden and fellow Senator Bernie Sanders, who will face-off on Thursday.
Warren robustly defended her plans for “structural” changes to the U.S. economy, saying the current system is tilted to benefit the wealthy. She said that laws were in place to take on corporate giants but that leaders needed the “courage” to enforce them. She avoided major gaffes and pitched her campaign stump lines about a progressive agenda to a national audience.
Even the NBC moderators treated Warren like the candidate to beat, giving her a second question even before half the debate participants had spoken at all. She got the final word before the candidates exited the stage.
No Breakout for No. 2 Spot
With Warren getting all the advantages of a front-runner, the rest seemed determined to slug it out for No. 2. There was little evidence of the push and pull between progressives and centrists in the party, except for a few differences on issues like health care.
Senator Amy Klobuchar delivered the most memorable zingers, calling out Washington Governor Jay Inslee when he tried to claim the abortion rights mantle. “I just want to say, there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” she said to loud applause. Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who repeatedly cited her military service, corrected Ohio Representative Tim Ryan on whether al-Qaeda or the Taliban were responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro all competed for the best Spanish-language delivery.
Democrats Mostly Agree, but Not on Health Care
On issues like climate change, abortion rights and income inequality, the Democrats seemed largely in sync. But when it came to health care, some of the old policy schisms emerged.
When moderator Lester Holt asked for a show of hands to see who supports a government-run health-care system known as Medicare for All, only two did: Warren and de Blasio. They said they would abolish private health insurance.
“How can you defend a system that’s not working?” said de Blasio.
The other candidates favored a more incremental approach. “I think we should be the party that keeps what’s working and fixes what’s broken,” said former Representative John Delaney of Maryland.
Beto O’Rourke Couldn’t Catch a Break
O’Rourke, who gained fame for nearly unseating Republican Senator Ted Cruz in the 2018 election, got roughed up by other candidates for backing private health insurance, refusing to support decriminalizing crossing the border and for not directly answering questions from the moderators.
O’Rourke became the guy to interrupt. When he talked about a myriad of issues related to health care, including expanding Medicare and Medicaid, de Blasio interjected, followed by Delaney.
In one sharp exchange on immigration, fellow Texan Castro pointedly said to O’Rourke, “If you did your homework on this issue, you would know” more about it.
Big Corporations and the Wealthy Emerge as Targets
Within the first few minutes of the debate, names of some of the biggest U.S. corporations were being thrown out as targets.
Ryan attacked General Motors Co. for laying off workers in Lordstown, Ohio, while building the new Chevrolet Blazer SUV in Mexico. Booker said he feels “very strongly” about antitrust enforcement and added that he would single out “companies like Halliburton or Amazon,” saying they pay nothing in taxes.
“If billionaires can pay off their yachts, students should be able to pay off their student loans,” Klobuchar said.
Warren said the economy is “doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top.”
Who Can Beat Trump?
One person was largely absent from the debates: Trump. While the candidates occasionally attacked his policies, they stuck mostly to the key issues, mindful of the danger of focusing too much on Trump at the expense of what matters in voters’ lives. Impeachment and the Mueller report were only briefly mentioned.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s name came up a lot, but none of the candidates, including Warren, had a clear answer for dealing with him and a Republican-led Senate.
Klobuchar closed with her key pitch of electability against Trump given her past record of outperforming Republican opponents in Minnesota.
Thirty-five minutes into the debate, Trump delivered his own one-word review.
“BORING!” he tweeted.
Crowded Debate Format Favors Front-Runners
Wednesday’s contest was an indication of the challenges that lower-tier candidates face in breaking from the pack in a crowded race, given that the first and last words went to a front-runner, in this case, Warren.
Candidates often wound up talking over each other and interrupting rivals as they fought for air time, with moderators cutting them off. No one got more than 11 minutes 6 seconds of air time, across two hours. NBC struggled with the format, with five moderators and a glitchy audio system.
The format highlighted how difficult it will be for Thursday’s field, especially for lesser-known candidates as they share the same stage with higher-polling rivals like Biden, Sanders, Senator Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
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