Of the twelve candidates on the debate stage last night, only eight have qualified for debate number five. This could be the last of these events for a few candidates, but will it offer the springboard any of them seek? As for those on top, the goal is to stay on message and outlast the others. Let’s see who hit the target they needed.
Julian Castro scored points when he mentioned the Dallas police shooting of Atatiana Jefferson. He earned applause with the line “Police violence is gun violence,” in response to a discussion started over Representative O’Rourke’s infamous proclamation “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15s.” Despite a few shining moments, Castro failed to distinguish himself from the other progressives onstage. He has yet to qualify for the November debates, and his performance here may not be enough to capitalize on.
Elizabeth Warren stayed mostly on defense this debate, taking the hits that were spent on Joe Biden in previous debates. Despite Colbert pushing her on it last month and the moderators asking her Tuesday night, she cannot quite seem to answer about taxes on the middle class. It’s hard to say this performance will hurt her, as she remains consistent in her presentation and continues to rely heavily on anecdotes and broad strokes. She’s the candidate for those wanting structural overhaul as opposed to Bernie’s revolution or the moderate democrat’s incremental change.
Tom Steyer deserves credit just for being onstage. Maybe the personal millions spent on TV and internet commercials can keep an anti-corporate, climate-focused Business candidate in the race. He has a podium reserved in November, so the hedge fund manager is not quitting yet.
This debate featured many of the moderate candidates striking back against the progressives in the party after a more muted presence in previous debates. Mid-level candidates need to provide a contrast between themselves and the others to gather the many undecided votes this cycle.
Pete Buttigieg opened strong on the impeachment question. The moderate Mayor of South Bend offered a vision of “the day after Trump’s presidency” that spoke to the center-left Democrats many campaigns ignore. He talked about politicians saying the right things but nothing getting done, and proved his point after slamming O’Rourke for his non-answer about enforcing mandatory gun buybacks and Warren for her non-answer about middle class taxes after Medicare For All. He provided a voice for the passionate moderates he’s calling the new majority. Bonus points for mentioning Hong Kong’s fight for freedom.
Bernie Sanders had many eyes on him tonight after last week’s heart attack. When the health question came, he swatted it down. He stayed on message and stayed as energetic as ever. His message is one of revolution, and he asked the party if they had the guts to fight for their causes. When Warren does not answer the middle class tax question, Bernie does. Bernie’s strength in these debates has been authenticity, and he did not stray from that Tuesday.
Amy Klobuchar was another moderate to stand out last night. She came away clean after her spat with Warren over healthcare, and she caters to the middle-American voters who are often overlooked. She has yet to qualify for the November debates, but should not be counted out just yet.
Beto O’Rourke needed a breakout moment this debate and his Spanish didn’t cut it. Castro and Buttigieg made a fool of him on gun reform, and he had no issue where he seemed most knowledgeable. It seems unlikely Rep. O’Rourke will meet the polling requirements for November.
Joe Biden continues a campaign on the legacy of the Obama administration. When Buttigieg indirectly characterized him as the “back to normal” candidate, Biden rejected the notion. But nearly all of his answers call back to his experience as Vice President. He did not have a target on his back most of the night like last debate, but only because other candidates no longer see him as the main threat.
Tulsi Gabbard had threatened to boycott the debate in the week leading up to it. After she announced she would attend, fans would have hoped for a bigger splash. The Hawaiian Congresswoman attempted to confront Elizabeth Warren twice last night, and neither one went well. She called out the New York Times for their hit piece this week, but she’s speaking to the wrong room. She was far outnumbered on foreign policy issues, and her voice got drowned out. With the polling requirements raised for November, Tulsi needs something more to make it in the room at all next month.
Candidates not on this list have qualified for the November debates, but didn’t have any big moments last night. Each had their moments to shine, but Andrew Yang seems more comfortable doing three hours of Joe Rogan rather than three hours of CNN/NYT. Kamala Harris decided to go after Warren about banning Donald Trump from Twitter, on a stage used to discuss the nation’s top issues. Cory Booker maintained his passion and optimism but he’ll need something more next month for any breakout before Iowa.
As Iowa draws nearer, candidates toward the bottom are reaching the ends of their campaigns. Many candidates point to the inadequacy of these debates as a forum for talking about the issues, but their relevance to the polls makes them hard to pass up. Will alternative media rise fast enough to save anyone being thinned out by the DNC? The answer is only months away when the polls open in Iowa on February 3rd of next year.
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