Beto O’Rourke got roughed up, while Julián Castro prospered at his fellow Texan’s expense. Elizabeth Warren left unscathed.
And for once, it wasn’t all about President Donald Trump or the Democratic frontrunner, Joe Biden.
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Wednesday night’s debate had all the hallmarks of an undercard: among the top-five polling candidates, only Warren was on stage. But it nonetheless benefited from first-night anticipation and from a field of underdogs eager to mix it up in a bid to break out.
Here are seven takeaways from the first debate of the 2020 Democratic primary:
Castro shows some fire, and Beto gets lit up
Castro and Bill de Blasio must have smelled blood around O’Rourke. Both low-polling men made a point of going after him — and not Warren — in an effort to gain a foothold in the debate.
But it was Castro whose hits landed. He chided O’Rourke for his unwillingness to support a proposal to decriminalize border crossings. O’Rourke said he was interested in a more “comprehensive” immigration reform. But he couldn’t shake Castro, who called O’Rourke “Beto,” and said at one point that he would know better if he did “your homework.” As low-polling rivals stole the microphone from him, at times O’Rourke looked soft.
This ran sharply against the grain of the campaign, in which Castro has been relegated to an afterthought.
Tactical or not, speaking Spanish is a big deal
The expression on Cory Booker’s face when O’Rourke started speaking Spanish early in the debate went ricocheting around the internet, just as the taunting of O’Rourke began. It didn’t help that O’Rourke was evading directly answering a question about whether he would support a marginal tax rate of 70 percent on the nation’s highest earners.
Marianne Williamson, who will take the stage on Thursday, said on Twitter, “I need to learn Spanish by tomorrow night at 9.”
But let’s talk about that Spanish for a minute. O’Rourke comes from a West Texas border city where people walk to Ciudad Juárez for lunch and Spanish speakers are everywhere. Anyone who’s been to his campaign events knows he regularly breaks into Spanish. And the debate, as his campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon pointed out on Twitter, was on Telemundo, too.
Across the U.S., there are households where it is no small thing to see a U.S. politician speaking Spanish on a presidential debate stage.
By the end of the night, O’Rourke wasn’t alone: Castro and Booker had offered lines in Spanish, too.
Warren takes care of business, with an asterisk
The Massachusetts senator’s national polling trajectory, combined with her dominance in the policy primary, ratcheted up expectations for a commanding debate performance. Did she deliver? For the most part, yes.
Warren opened up strong with sharp, crisp points on the economy and closed out with a tender biographical narrative. She faded in the middle, however, overshadowed by crossfire over a lengthy border debate. And in another moment that could help her standing with Bernie Sanders supporters but be a problem in the general election if she makes it, Warren was one of just two candidates to volunteer that she would do away with the private health insurance industry.
Still, Warren stayed out of the line of fire while coming across as the authority on economic disparity. Positioned in the center of the stage, Warren was also prominently given the first question of the night and last. Her opening answer: “Who is this economy really working for? It’s doing great for thinner and thinner slices at the top,” was a big applause line.
So, too, was her closer: “By the time I graduated from high school, my family didn’t have the money for a college application, much less a chance for me to go to college. But I got my chance. It was a $50-a-semester commuter college. That was a little slice of government that created some opportunity for a girl.”
Cory Booker’s team has long promised the New Jersey senator would shine on the debate stage as a gifted speaker and storyteller. He did.
At 10 minutes and 50 seconds, Booker notched more speaking time than any other candidate on that crowded stage. And according to a chart published by Google, Booker saw the most search traffic during the debates. Overall, his performance struck a balance of introducing himself to a broader audience and leaning into race issues, while detailing his policies, including on guns.
“If you need a license to drive a car, you should need a license to buy and own a firearm,” Booker said to big applause.
Booker needed a breakout in this debate. Since entering the race on Feb. 1, he’s failed to break from single digits in polling, even after pouring resources into early state organization and rolling out a series of policy proposals. Before Wednesday, Booker’s biggest moment came last week in a tangle with Joe Biden over comments the former vice president made about segregationist senators.
Klobuchar comes prepared — and disrupts a mansplainer
Amy Klobuchar had pretty much fallen off the map after announcing her campaign in a snowstorm. But if the Minnesota senator gains traction in the primary, we’ll be looking back at her Wednesday debate performance as the moment it started.
It wasn’t just that she expertly delivered a line. It’s that the line she delivered so neatly summed up a significant difference between the women running for president and the men — and the fact that three women were standing on a presidential stage.
Addressing health care for women, Klobuchar watched as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee promoted himself as “the only candidate here who has passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive rights in health insurance and the only candidate who passed a public option.”
Pretty standard stuff for a chief executive on a debate stage. But then Klobuchar pounced.
“I want to say there [are] three women up here who fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” she said to a cheering crowd.
Inslee could only smile.
Climate change is getting its airing – kind of
“Let’s get specific,” moderator Rachel Maddow said to Inslee, and you could almost hear the Democratic Party’s climate activists cry out in relief. Climate change has come up so little in previous presidential debates that any air time was a major deal.
Credit Inslee — and his relentless but unsuccessful pestering for a climate-focused debate — for working the refs ahead of time.
But what did it do for him? Probably nothing, for the same reason having a substantive discussion about any issue in this Democratic primary is hard. In the broad strokes that work in 60-second debate answers, most of the Democrats running for president agree on most things.
Just a few moments after Inslee, Castro was asked about people who build homes in climate-affected places, and whose responsibility that should be. Castro easily dismissed a question that he said does not represent the “vast majority of the issue.”
The kind of substantive debate that Democrats might find some differentiation on — carbon pricing, nuclear power, proposals to ban gasoline-powered vehicles — still isn’t being had.
Biden and Trump are forgotten or ignored
Two figures not on stage were nevertheless widely expected to loom over the debate: Biden, the Democratic frontrunner, who will debate on Thursday night, and Trump.
In recent weeks, several Democrats had begun drawing contrasts with Biden – on abortion, on his comments about segregationists and, less explicitly, on his age.
But no Democrat tried to land a blow on the Democrat who was not in the room – and who, after viewing the debate, would have had a free shot to respond on Thursday night.
Nor did candidates dwell on Trump, who did not tweet attacks at his rivals, except to declare the debate night “BORING!”
Expect a more focused attack on the president on Thursday, when Biden stands at center stage. As the frontrunner, he has no incentive to tangle with other Democrats. He has trained his campaign heavily on Trump.