The seven top Democratic presidential candidates took the debate stage Friday night just days ahead of the New Hampshire primary, a back-and-forth affair that spoke to the stakes in the 2020 nomination fight.
I watched, took notes and tweeted. Below, my take on the best and worst from the night that was.
* Pete Buttigieg: The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor went into the debate as the candidate with the most momentum in the race — and nothing that happened over the two-plus hours at Saint Anselm College will change that dynamic. Buttigieg was in control most of the night, acing a question about whether he would have ordered a strike against Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and, smartly, leaning heavily into his own military service. Buttigieg also benefited from the fact that the other six people onstage seemed barely interested in taking hard shots at him — and sticking with them for more than a single applause line. The toughest questioning of the night came from ABC’s Linsey Davis, who pressed Buttigieg on the increase in arrests of black citizens during his time as mayor. But with a brief follow-up from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, none of the other candidates pressed the case.
* Amy Klobuchar: Over and over again, Klobuchar puts in strong debate performances and winds up with little to show for it in terms of votes and polls. Well, the Minnesota senator did it again on Friday night. I thought Klobuchar had the best moment of any candidate in the debate when she used a question about Michael Bloomberg’s personal wealth to talk about her hardscrabble upbringing. And her closing statement — a paean to the need for a return to empathy — was the best in class. Will it matter? It hasn’t yet. But Klobuchar deserves credit for repeatedly putting her best foot forward.
* Bernie Sanders: If Buttigieg had the most momentum coming into the debate, Sanders was right behind him. And by the same logic, there was very little in this debate that will peel any of the Vermont senator’s support away from him. While Sanders took some incoming from the more moderate candidates in the field, he never faced any sort of contrast from Warren, who, theoretically, is competing with him for the liberal lane. Time and time again — from health care to the environment to private prisons — Sanders loudly and proudly embraced his decidedly liberal views. And, judging from the Iowa results and the New Hampshire polls, lots of Democratic voters like those views.
* Michael Bloomberg: Sure, Warren and Klobuchar attacked the former New York City mayor for his free-spending ways in the race to date. But Bloomberg and his people will be thrilled that the ABC moderators saw fit to ask a question about his impact on the race at a debate where he wasn’t even on the stage. That Bloomberg was mentioned means he matters, which is the first step (of many) toward a plausible path to the nomination.
* Joe Biden: Unlike Sanders and Buttigieg, the former vice president needed something in this debate to change his trajectory. I’m not sure he got it. (Biden’s best moment was his call for the audience to stand in support of fired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.) Biden got the message that he needed to be more forceful and more on the attack; he was both — although the attempts at forcefulness often came across to me as plain old yelling. Biden started the debate — literally the first question — by acknowledging that “I’ll probably take a hit here” in reference to Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. He repeatedly defended the “politics of the past” by insisting that he had done a lot of good for the country in those years. Even if that’s true, debates (and races) are rarely won by focusing on the past.
* Elizabeth Warren: Along with Buttigieg and Klobuchar, Warren is clearly one of the most naturally skilled debaters in the field. And she was quite solid again on Friday — using somewhat limited speaking time (which was weird) to make her optimistic case for why her preferred liberal solutions are the right way to solve the country’s problems. So why did she wind up in the loser’s bracket? Because Warren finished a distant third behind Buttigieg and Sanders in Iowa, and most polling I’ve seen in New Hampshire has her third again. Despite that standing, she seemed entirely unwilling to draw anything but the most tepid contrasts with the two front-runners. Maybe Warren and her team know something I don’t about the New Hampshire electorate (and it wouldn’t be the first time for that!) but it’s hard for me to see her changing many minds by simply reiterating what have been her main talking points throughout the campaign.
* Tom Steyer/Andrew Yang: Both seem like very nice men. (I have met Yang and can attest to this.) But neither one seemed like they belonged on that stage. Steyer desperately tried to inject himself into every debate the front-runners were having but found himself repeatedly swatted away. Yang barely spoke. It was a forgettable night for both.
* Lighting: Was it only me who fixated on the fact that the candidates’ faces were well-lit but their hands were basically in the dark? Just a weird thing — particularly for those candidates — Bernie, I’m looking at you — who gestured a lot with their (unlit) hands.