Thursday’s Democratic primary debate was the first time all the leading candidates were onstage together. The most illuminating exchanges were not between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who met onstage for the first time, but from other pairings. Here are six highlights from the debate.
It was the best of Biden, and the Biden of Biden.
Once again this debate season, Biden came under the fiercest and most sustained scrutiny, from his ideological foes, from a former Cabinet member and even from the moderators. He was pushed on race, on deportations, on health care and, in an intense exchange, on his age.
But in the end, Biden exited the stage the same way he entered it: the embattled-yet-clear front-runner, no matter if his meandering syntax and twisting verbal gymnastics sometimes failed to land clear points.
One difference from the past two debates: He did begin to articulate more of his own case for the White House, rather than simply saying President Donald Trump must be stopped. In particular, Biden came armed on the crucial topic of health care, with lines to joust with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Warren over their support of an expansive “Medicare for All” plan.
“I know that the senator says she’s for Bernie, well, I’m for Barack,” Biden said to Warren, speaking not only about the Affordable Care Act but also the legacy of a popular former president.
The Biden strategy to bear-hug Obama at every opportunity was questioned by rivals, but none figured out how to drive a wedge between the two men.
By evening’s end, however, Biden’s performance was uneven. Asked about a comment decades ago in regards to reparations for slavery — “I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago” — he ended up talking about playing the radio for small children to expand their vocabulary, and used an outdated reference if there ever was one.
“Make sure you have the record player on at night,” he said.
It was Biden’s most tweeted about line of the night.
Warren goes unscathed in fiercest debate yet.
While Biden and Sanders argued to her right, and Julián Castro lobbed grenades at Biden from her left, Warren walked away unscathed.
Nobody attacked her. Nobody questioned her electability. Nobody said anything she’s done in her life was misguided. She wasn’t involved in the night’s most memorable exchanges.
In other words, she was exactly where she wanted to be.
For the one candidate in the race who has been steadily rising in the polls and seen her popularity among Democratic primary voters increase, Warren once again got off scot-free in a presidential primary debate. She didn’t instigate tension with the other candidates, and nobody said anything about her.
Along the way, Warren was able to define herself as the candidate with specific plans without getting into the muck of those arguing over policy specifics.
This approach has fed her steady rise from the mid-single digits to a virtual tie for second place with Sanders, and it will take another debate to see if anyone in the field will try to stop her.
Sanders takes direct aim at Biden. Will it help Warren?
Sanders walked onto the stage with an offensive plan — attack Biden.
On health care, trade and the Iraq War, the Vermont socialist took square aim at the former vice president. It was a choreographed onslaught of Sanders’ greatest hits, allowing him to argue over and over that he is the tribune of the left wing of the Democratic Party while Biden has been beholden to corporate interests and would not be a true agent of change.
The question is, will it change things?
Aides for both Sanders and Biden agree the two are fighting over the same subset of voters: a lower-income, less-educated set of the electorate who are not paying close attention to the day-to-day proceedings of the presidential campaign.
No one is quite clear on what will happen if Biden starts bleeding support. Iowa surveys show Sanders is the leading second-choice candidate among Biden’s backers. But several others — Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, most explicitly among those onstage Thursday — are touting themselves as a Biden-style unifier who can win over moderate Republicans in a general election.
As for Biden, he defended himself from the Sanders onslaught and lobbed a few shots back at his fellow septuagenarian. He reminded the audience that Sanders is “a socialist” and suggested he has confidence in corporate America to fix the health care system, a confusing argument Sanders let be.
Harris has a scripted answer for that.
If Sen. Kamala Harris’ plan in the first Miami debate was to take on Biden, her objective in Houston seemed to be to pivot to the politically safer terrain of attacking Trump. Indeed, she addressed him directly in her opening statement, ending it with this: “Now, President Trump you can go back to watching Fox News.”
The crowd roared.
One-liners are a fact of life in political debates. But string too many together in one setting and they can go from zinging to cloying, and Harris had a noticeable number of set pieces that sounded rehearsed Thursday. (Klobuchar — “Houston we have a problem,” she said in Houston — rivaled her.)
The president, Harris said, “conducts trade policy by tweet.”
And on the hate-fueled shooting in El Paso, Texas, Harris said that Trump “didn’t pull the trigger, but he certainly been tweeting out the ammunition.”
Those two are well-worn from Harris’ appearances on the stump. She had new lines, too.
“He reminds me of that guy in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ when you pull back the curtain, it’s a really small dude,” she said of Trump at another point.
The lines all landed individually. Collectively, they left the distinct impression of a politician.
Castro attack on Biden might come back to bite him.
It was the line of the night, for better or worse.
Castro, the former Obama housing secretary, who parried with Biden on deportation policy in the last debate, went for the jugular this time: questioning the 76-year-old’s mental agility in an exchange about the particulars of health care policy.
“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago,” Castro, 44, asked Biden. He then repeated himself for emphasis. “Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?”
It was the most tweeted-about moment of the entire debate.
And while others have made the case for generational change and new leadership, Castro’s frontal assault on Biden’s acuity, and by extension the his age, left some Democrats shocked. (After the debate, Castro said on ABC, “I wasn’t taking a shot at his age.”)
Had Castro overreached in so personally going after one of the party’s most popular figures? Would there be backlash? Plus, it was not clear about whether Castro was even correct in his attack. Biden supporters said he was wrong; Castro aides litigated whether one could “automatically buy in” to programs, as Biden said.
The fact that Castro repeatedly challenged Biden throughout the night only intensified his attempted takedown of the former vice president. “I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama and you’re not,” Castro said at another point.
“That,” Biden shot back, “would be a surprise to him.”
Now everybody loves Beto.
Beto O’Rourke, the one candidate whose entry and brief rise elicited the most mockery and jealousy among rival campaigns, became a figure of admiration at Thursday’s debate, following his response to the mass shooting that killed 22 people at a Walmart in his hometown of El Paso.
“The way he handled what happened in his hometown is meaningful,” said Biden, after seemingly forgetting O’Rourke’s surname.
“Beto, God love you for standing so courageously in the midst of that tragedy,” Harris said.
“I so appreciate what the congressman’s been doing,” Klobuchar said, before she offered a disagreement with his proposal to require owners of assault-style weapons to sell them to the government.
The El Paso shooting certainly changed the stature of O’Rourke, who took a two-week break from the campaign trail. The former congressman has since shifted his campaign to adopt more a confrontational stance against racism and gun violence.
“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15,” he said. His campaign quickly tweeted the quip.
But the praise being heaped upon O’Rourke is also indicative of how far he has fallen since his March campaign launch as a presumptive front-runner on the cover of Vanity Fair. Now languishing at around 1% to 2% in most polls, he’s not seen as a threat by the others.