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Key takeaways from Democratic presidential candidate debate

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 15, 2019

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, gestures toward Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times on Tuesday at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. (John Minchillo / Associated Press)
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, gestures toward Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times on Tuesday at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. (John Minchillo / Associated Press)
By Mark Z. Barabak Los Angeles Times

Democrats set a world record Tuesday night, cramming a dozen presidential debaters on a single cheek-by-jowl stage.

If nothing else, the exercise proved that more isn’t necessarily better – unless you enjoy hearing different candidates answer different questions, a circumscribed back-and-forth and long periods of contestants disappearing from sight.

If there is one sentiment commonly expressed by Democrats of all stripe – apart from a white-hot desire to unseat President Donald Trump – it’s the chance to assess a small handful of serious presidential contenders in a way that doesn’t feel like two policy-laden hours of speed dating.


So far eight candidates, some with little to no chance of winning the nomination, have already qualified for the next debate, set for Nov. 20.

While anticipation builds, here are seven takeaways from Tuesday night’s crowded convocation.

Warren under attack

Elizabeth Warren has performed almost flawlessly over the last several months, as she’s climbed from (allegedly) dead-and-buried over her exaggerated claims of Native American heritage to co-front-runner status with former Vice President Joe Biden.

Of course, the higher a candidate rises, the more intensive the heat.

Far more than any previous debate, Warren came under repeated attack from her rivals who pressed the Massachusetts senator not just over her formidable array of plans but her champion-of-the-little-guy persona.

“Just because you have different ideas doesn’t mean you aren’t fighting for regular people,” said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who said she was no less committed to lifting up struggling Americans than Warren simply because she was advocating more moderate policies.

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke scolded Warren as well, suggesting it sometimes seems “she is more focused on being punitive or putting one part of the country against the other,” drawing a furrowed brow from his target.

Warren, though occasionally nonplussed, largely came across unruffled.

“I have made clear what my principles are here,” she said amid a battery of questions about her support for Medicare for All. “Costs will go up for the wealthy and big corporations and for hard-working middle-class families, costs will go down.”

No doubt the onslaught was a taste of what’s to come.

Biden ducks

By now it’s a familiar debate-night ritual: Biden at center stage, a fat target on his back.

The former vice president, a shaky front-runner to start, had new reason to brace himself after President Trump turned his son’s work for a Ukrainian gas company into an anchor around Biden’s collar. (Trump also managed, by seeking foreign meddling in the 2020 race, to spur House Democrats into weighing his impeachment.)

The issue surfaced as moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN asked Biden whether it was appropriate for his son Hunter to, effectively, cash in on the family name.

After a defense of their honor – “My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong” – Biden sought to pivot and train his fire on Trump.

“Rudy Guiliani” – Trump’s private attorney – “the president and his thugs have already proven they’re flat lying,” Biden said. “What we have to do is focus now on Donald Trump.”

When Cooper pressed Biden a second time, he reiterated his assertion of innocence and exhortation to focus on Trump, which laid the issue to rest for the evening.

But the underlying question of his son’s alleged buck-raking and self-dealing is still ripe for continued criticism.

Biden parries

Biden had a stronger moment when he addressed one of the key questions surrounding his candidacy: his age.

At 76, with a penchant for wandering answers and cultural references that can seem cringingly dated, some say the vice president’s time has come and gone.

Obviously, it’s impossible to turn back the clock. Instead, Biden sought to make his longevity an asset.

“One of the reasons I’m running is because of my age and experience,” he said, citing his decades in public life and, especially, eight years as vice president. “I know what has to be done and I will not need any on-the-job training the day I take office.”

To help make his case, Biden vowed to release his medical records along with two-decades worth of tax returns, implicitly urging others on stage to do the same.

No more Mr. Nice Guy

Pete Buttigieg was, for a time, the pet rock of the 2020 campaign.

Cute, fun, a novelty of sorts; look at the mayor of tiny South Bend, Indiana, go!

And then Buttigieg became a factor in the race, raising a ton of money and building himself one of the most formidable campaign operations in Iowa, the state that casts the first votes and, for many, is where their campaigns will do or die.

He turned in by far his most pugnacious performance, challenging Warren’s support for Medicare for All, flaunting his outsider status by going after the Washington politicians on stage and trading his long, discursive policy talk for a series of sharp-elbowed responses.

“Dead wrong,” he snapped at Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard when she criticized the “regime change war” in Syria.

“You just made clear you have no idea,” he responded when O’Rourke gave a murky answer on how he’d enforce his proposed buyback of assault weapons, which has become a signature issue for the former congressman.

“I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal,” Buttigieg bristled. “Everyone on this stage wants to get something done.”

Should Biden stumble, Buttigieg clearly has an eye on emerging as the moderate alternative to the more left-leaning Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Sanders’ health

The more than three hours beneath the TV bright lights marked Sanders’ first campaign appearance since he suffered a heart attack earlier this month in Las Vegas.

Not a good thing for a presidential hopeful. And really not a good thing for a presidential hopeful who is 78 years old.

The Vermont senator managed to go the distance looking little worse for wear, though he did appear less animated than his usual arm-flailing, finger-jabbing self.

“I’m healthy, I’m feeling great,” he said, waving off a question about his well-being to level a familiar attack on the pharmaceutical industry.

He vowed to wage “a vigorous campaign” across the country to allay any concerns.

Bad. Really Bad. Really Really Bad

Democrats demonstrated there’s no such thing as being too anti-Trump. (At least for most of those on stage.)

Not one disagreed that he deserved to be impeached. The one-upsmanship came when it was time to say just how much he deserved to be impeached.

“In my judgment,” Sanders said, “Trump is the most corrupt president in the history of this country.”

Biden echoed the sentiment, calling Trump “the most corrupt president in modern history. Indeed,” he allowed, “in all history.”

Trumping, er, topping them all, California Sen. Kamala Harris said the president was not only “the most corrupt” but also the most “unpatriotric president we’ve ever had.”

Gabbard sounded a more measured note, saying she worried that, if Trump is impeached by the House but cleared by the Senate, it will only deepen the country’s sharp cavernous divide.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang said, yes, Trump should be impeached but it won’t solve the underlying economic anxieties that landed him in office in the first place.

Not a big crowd-pleaser for the partisan audience inside the debate hall, but at least they stood out.

Steyer is no silver-tongued orator

San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer spent millions to goose his standing in the polls and earn himself a coveted spot on the debate stage.

His first appearance on the national stage seems unlikely to pay off as handsomely as the returns he earned back when he was running Farallon Capital and routinely delivering double-digit gains for his investors.

Steyer entered the evening averaging less than 2% support in national polls and less than 4% in his best state, Nevada.

He was nowhere to be seen for long stretches and it’s hard to imagine his standing greatly improving based on Tuesday night’s mundane performance

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