Debate Snapshots: 10 Candidates, 10 Strategies on Display

Debate Snapshots: 10 Candidates, 10 Strategies on Display
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
Debate Snapshots: 10 Candidates, 10 Strategies on Display
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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Every candidate who filed on stage Thursday night at Texas Southern University in Houston had the same goal: to secure the Democratic nomination and later the White House. But each took a different path in trying to win their party’s third primary debate, and those tactics revealed something unique about the character and strategy of the individual candidates.

With November 2020 still more than a year away, these snapshots offer a glimpse of what to expect going forward.

Joe Biden

With his front-runner lead shrinking but still substantial — 9.5 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics poll average -- Biden chose to further distinguish himself from his far more liberal rivals by staking out an even bigger claim to the centrist lane. He was largely successful.

The former vice president was strongest out of the gate when he gambled and scored some early points by taking swings at his two closest competitors, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, over their lack of plans to pay for all the new spending they propose, especially on “Medicare for All.”

His responses became less steady and streamlined as the nearly three-hour debate wore on, at one point delivering a jumbled answer on his Iraq War record that included this line: “I said something that was not meant the way I said it.” There was also a cringe-worthy moment when he botched an answer about the importance of early education with an odd and archaic reference to playing a “record player” to young children.

Over all, Biden managed to survive such stumbles by drawing on his greatest strengths — an ability to overcome life’s setbacks (cited in response to a question that seemed tailor-made for him), his decades serving in the Senate and reality checks on the liberal plans of the rest of the field.

Bernie Sanders

The senator from Vermont may be the undisputed ideological purist in the Democratic Party. Medicare for All. Free college. A $15-an-hour minimum wage. All, as the Sanders campaign likes to remind reporters, were championed by him first, and he has moved the 2020 field farther and farther left.

An unwitting acknowledgement of this fact came early in the debate from the front-runner. Motioning to his right at one moment, Biden described Sanders as “the president,” before correcting himself.

Ideological preeminence, however, has not translated into political supremacy thus far. Sanders remains in second place, polling at 17.3% but nipping persistently at Biden’s heels.

But on stage Thursday, Sanders didn’t bull-rush his onetime former colleague in the Senate. He rebutted attacks from Biden that he was too trusting of “corporate America” with a laugh. He also weathered criticism from others that he was too extreme.

In one exchange, this one prompted by moderator Jorge Ramos, the self-described democratic socialist distanced himself from the crumbling socialism on display in Venezuela.

“To equate what goes on in Venezuela with what I believe is extremely unfair," Sanders said. “I agree with what goes on in Canada and Scandinavia, guaranteeing health care to all people as a human right. I believe that the United States should not be the only major country on earth not to provide paid family and medical leave.”

It was a passable answer and the moderator moved on. Attacks from Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar were zeroed in on Sanders but not terribly effective. He ably rebutted both. Whether he can keep this up all the way the Democratic National Convention remains to be seen.

Elizabeth Warren

There are two races playing out currently. One involves all the candidates who made their way on stage. Another, a more exclusive battle, is between the top three contenders. Elizabeth Warren showed that she could roll with the punches taken by Biden while noticeably holding fire on Sanders.

“I know that the senator says that she's for Bernie, well, I'm for Barack,” the former vice president said regarding the comparative advantages of building on Obamacare rather than scrapping it for Medicare for All.

Warren didn’t flinch when given the opportunity to respond.

“We all owe a huge debt to President Obama, who fundamentally transformed health care in America and committed this country to health care for every human being,” she said. “And now the question is, how best can we improve on it?”

Like so many of the other candidates, Warren competed for oxygen. Aside from that mild back-and-forth, the third-place candidate didn’t go after No. 1. Apparently comfortable at the moment with 16.8% support, it seemed that Warren didn’t think it necessary to make the third debate her breakout moment.

This conservative approach meant, in the estimation of Warren’s spokesman, looking “like a President tonight.” The liberal Massachusetts senator will likely go toe-to-toe with Biden at some later point. She wasn’t in a hurry Thursday night.

Kamala Harris

The California Democrat showed up to the debate ready to razzle-dazzle with one-liners, sharp barbs for President Trump and a big personality with plenty of ready laughter.

She giggled when Andrew Yang said he would give 10 viewers $1,000 a month. She guffawed after one of her own jokes about Trump being the “small dude” behind the curtain in “The Wizard of Oz” – a comment that took a strange twist when she realized she was speaking to ABC’s height-challenged George Stephanopoulos.

The first-term senator was clearly on the hunt for a viral moment akin to one in the first debate when she rebuked Biden on busing and working with segregationists.

But that stand-out moment never really came, and Harris managed to once again muddy the waters regarding her shifting health care positions. On Thursday night, she said she has always supported Medicare for All, though last month she came out against it, stating that she was no longer “comfortable” supporting the Bernie Sanders health care bill she had previously co-sponsored.

Her standing in fourth place, at 6.5%, leaves her far behind the top tier. Harris needs to close the distance soon. It didn’t happen on the third debate stage. 

Pete Buttigieg

The mayor from South Bend, Ind., is a war fighter. The military veteran, however, spent the opening moments of the debate calling for peace during a testy exchange over Democratic plans for health care reform.

“This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable,” an exasperated Buttigieg said. “This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington — scoring points against each other, poking at each other and telling each other that my plan, your plan --”

The rest of the field wasn’t having it, including Julian Castro, who cut him off by saying, “That's called the Democratic primary election.”

Centrist peacemaker could have been a winning strategy for the Midwestern mayor who currently places fifth in the contest with 4.8% support. But the rest of the field wanted a brawl, and when Buttigieg wasn’t willing to throw elbows he seemed to disappear.

“Where,” a headline in the liberal New Yorker magazine asked, “Was Mayor Pete Buttigieg at the Democratic Debate?” If the question is posed a second time, the young candidate may find his chances receding further.

Andrew Yang

The former Silicon Valley entrepreneur started the debate with a stunt, and it was on brand: He promised to give “freedom dividends” of $1,000 a month for a full year to 10 lucky Americans who signed up on his website.

Within minutes, had more than 100,000 visitors and campaign finance hawks wondering whether the promise of free money violated federal law. In total, Yang is promising to dole out $120,000 of his campaign funds — regardless of whether he gets elected.

“It’s time to trust ourselves more than our politicians,” Yang said, unveiling a move he had teased throughout the day on social media. “This is how we will get our country working for us again, the American people.”

Elsewhere throughout the debate, Yang disappeared. But the promise of a universal basic income has his campaign in sixth place with 3% backing. This pledge of free money got him into the debate, and Yang made clear he won’t deviate from it.

Beto O’Rourke

The former congressman from Texas has been floundering of late, unable to find his footing. But on Thursday night, the entire field couldn’t stop praising his handling of the mass shooting in El Paso.

O’Rourke has made his campaign largely about gun violence, and it went according to plan on the Houston stage. When asked if his policy of a mandatory assault weapons buy-back actually meant confiscation, the Texan didn’t demur with euphemism: “Hell, yes -- we are going to take your AR-15, AK-47.”

He could barely continue his answer with the home-state crowd roaring. His campaign, however, was more than ready to capitalize on the moment. It tweeted out the quote complete with a picture of an AR-15 that included a grenade launcher (an attachment illegal in the United States). Then it started selling T-shirts and merchandise with the viral phrase.

O’Rourke talked about other issues, to be sure. But the gun conversation, by design or otherwise, has become his hallmark. Whether it can improve his 2.8% standing in the polls remains to be seen.

Cory Booker

The New Jersey senator was cool, calm, and collected. And yet, Booker is still mired at just 2.3% support. He needed a breakout moment, an occasion that didn’t come for the Judiciary Committee member who previously dazzled Democrats with his aggressive cross-examination of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Booker was asked about meat consumption. The vegan laughed and pivoted to offer more substantial rhetoric on what should be done for veterans.

Booker took a shot at Biden for his suggestion that parents should mentor their children by playing music on record players. “At one point, he’s talking about people in communities like mine listening to record players,” he said afterward. “I don't remember the last time I saw a record player in my community.”

Booker, in short, didn’t break out.

Amy Klobuchar

The Minnesota senator needed the debating equivalent of a knockout punch of one of the top contenders to give a serious boost to her flagging campaign, which is mired below 2% nationally. But that moment never came, even though her performance in Houston was remarkably stronger than those in the first two debates.

The former prosecutor scored some points and applause by slamming Medicare for All as a “bad idea” and accusing Sanders of purposefully omitting a big problem with his health care bill, namely that 149 million Americans would not be allowed to keep their current insurance.

“While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill,” she said. “And on page eight it says we will no longer have private insurance as we know it.”

Klobuchar saved her best sequence for her closing lines when she recalled working to change hospital policy after giving birth to her sick daughter and insurance rules forced her to be discharged after 24 hours while her baby remained in intensive care.

“And I thought this could never happen to any other mom again,” she said, “so I went to our legislature.”

Julian Castro

Castro had little to lose and a lot to gain going into the debate. He made the most of his moment by going straight after Biden — and hard.

The former Housing and Urban Development secretary thought it prudent to compete with the former vice president for the mantle that former President Barack Obama left behind. Early on, during a question about preserving Obamacare or embracing Medicare for All, the Obama administration alums clashed.

Castro said his health care plan would cover more Americans than the one proposed by Biden because of automatic enrollment. Biden insisted, when confronted, that Americans would be automatically added.

“You just said that two minutes ago, you just said two minutes ago that they would have to buy-in,” the 44-year-old yelled at the 76-year-old. “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?”

Biden shot back that Obamacare should be preserved. The former Cabinet secretary said that the overall vision of Obamacare should be realized.

“I'm fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you're not,” Castro said.

“That will be a surprise to him,” Biden quipped.

Obama, however, has remained mostly silent during the primary. It seems unlikely that he will weigh in at all till there is a nominee, and equally unlikely that Castro, who sits at 1% in the polls, will dent Biden.

After the debate, the front-runner’s advisers called the Castro attack “a cheap shot.” Castro spokesman Sawyer Hackett, meanwhile, directed reporters to the transcript showing that Bided had indeed said Americans would have to buy in to his health care plan, not opt out.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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