Warren shines in first Democratic debate

MIAMI — Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenStaff seeks to create union at DNC America's middle class is getting hooked on government cash — and Democrats aren't done yet California Democrats warn of low turnout in recall election MORE (D-Mass.) delivered a standout performance in the first 2020 Democratic presidential debate, making the most of her time onstage as the lone top contender on Wednesday night.

Heading into the debate, there were questions about whether Warren, who has been climbing in the polls, would be hurt by not appearing on the second night alongside other top-tier candidates such as former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries FDA aims to give full approval to Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day: report Overnight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response MORE, who is the front-runner, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Briahna Joy Gray: Voters are 'torn' over Ohio special election Shontel Brown wins Ohio Democratic primary in show of establishment strength MORE (I-Vt.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisKamala Harris and our shameless politics Pelosi: House Democrats 'ready to work with' Biden on eviction ban Meghan McCain predicts DeSantis would put Harris 'in the ground' in 2024 matchup MORE (D-Calif.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegSunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate Sunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Chasten Buttigieg: DC 'almost unaffordable' MORE (D).

But Warren was sharp, energetic and often stood above the fray as many of her rivals bickered and declined to challenge her policies, even when they had previously disagreed with her.

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The NBC debate moderators often framed their questions for the candidates in terms of Warren’s policy proposals, establishing the Massachusetts Democrat as a key figure on the stage of 10 candidates.

When Sens. Cory BookerCory BookerWomen urge tech giants to innovate on office return Human rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines MORE (D-N.J.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharManchin 'can't imagine' supporting change to filibuster for voting rights Hillicon Valley: Democrats urge tech CEOs to combat Spanish disinformation | Amazon fined 6M by EU regulators Democrats urge tech CEOs to combat Spanish disinformation MORE (D-Minn.) were presented with opportunities to break with Warren, both demurred.

And when Warren was asked about whether her proposals on free college tuition, canceling student debt and breaking up the big tech companies are realistic, it set her up to deliver impassioned remarks about income inequality that she has polished over the past few months on the campaign trail.

Warren, who has gained traction with her “I have a plan for that” mantra, had one of her best moments of the night when NBC moderator Chuck ToddCharles (Chuck) David ToddChuck Todd is dead wrong: Liberal bias defines modern journalism The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Officers recount the horror of Jan. 6 NFL Network's Rich Eisen says he has COVID-19 despite being vaccinated MORE asked if she had a plan to deal with a GOP Senate if she wins the White House.

“I do,” Warren said, pausing to allow the audience to erupt in applause.

“Short of a Democratic majority in the Senate, you better understand the fight still goes on,” she added. “It starts in the White House, and it means that everybody we energize in 2020 stays on the front lines come January 2021. We have to push from the outside, have leadership from the inside and make this Congress reflect the will of the people.”

Warren was asked the first question of the debate and then again at the top of the second hour. She also got the last word since she was the final candidate to deliver a closing argument.

A little bit of luck was also on Warren's side — a microphone issue with the moderators prompted NBC to take an unscheduled commercial break, allowing Warren more time to think about her response to a question on gun control.

On climate change, Warren delivered what was viewed by many as the best response among the White House hopefuls, even though there was another candidate on stage, Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeBipartisan governors press Biden administration on Canadian border restrictions Overnight Energy: Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections | Biden to return to pre-Obama water protections | Western governors ask Biden for aid on wildfires Western governors ask Biden for aid on wildfires MORE (D), whose entire campaign is focused on green energy and the environment.

Green products must be "manufactured right here in the United States of America," Warren said. "Then we have to double down and sell it around the world. There's a $23 trillion market coming for green products. We should be the leaders and the owners, and we should have that 1.2 million manufacturing jobs here in America"

Warren’s strong debate performance is expected to give an extra boost to her already-surging campaign.

In the weeks leading up to the debate, Warren has received glowing media profiles, accompanied by rising polling numbers and ambitious policy proposals.

Those gains have found her battling with Sanders for the party’s progressive mantle, with some surveys showing Warren either tied with or ahead of him.

Among Warren's competitors on stage Wednesday, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) had a tough night, repeatedly absorbing attacks from his rivals, while Klobuchar and Booker fell short in efforts to set themselves apart. Reps. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanHouse passes spending bill to boost Capitol Police and Hill staffer pay Tim Ryan slams McCarthy for mocking Capitol physician, mask mandate Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections MORE (D-Ohio) and Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard on Chicago mayor's decision to limit media interviews to people of color: 'Anti-white racism' Fox News says network and anchor Leland Vittert have 'parted ways' New co-chairs named for congressional caucus for millennials MORE (D-Hawaii) and former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyDirect air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Lobbying world Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis MORE (D-Md.) also struggled to stand out.

Still, two other candidates may wake up on Thursday finding new life in their campaigns.

Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, the only Latino on stage, had several strong moments, particularly on the issue of immigration.

Castro, who previously served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said the death of a migrant father and child, captured in a viral photo that has provoked outrage, should “piss us all off.”

“Watching that image of Óscar and his daughter, Valeria, is heartbreaking,” Castro said. “It should also piss us all off.”

Castro set the bar among the contenders with his proposal to eliminate Section 1325, a statute that makes illegal entry into the U.S. a federal crime. He was trending on social media by the end of the debate.

New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioOn The Money: Biden issues targeted eviction moratorium | GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal The Memo: Disgraced Cuomo clings to power Overnight Health Care: Florida becomes epicenter of COVID-19 surge | NYC to require vaccination for indoor activities | Biden rebukes GOP governors for barring mask mandates MORE also had a strong performance, as he seeks to plant his flag among the progressive left.

De Blasio talked about raising a black son and how he worries that his son might have an interaction with the police that goes awry. He repeatedly jumped in when the other candidates were noncommittal on whether they would embrace policies championed by the progressive left, as was the case when O’Rourke declined to say whether he would support a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthiest Americans.

De Blasio also spoke about the "battle for the heart and soul of our party."

"This is supposed to be the party of working people," he said. "Yes, we’re supposed to be for a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthy. Yes, we’re supposed to be for free college, free public college, for our young people. We are supposed to break up big corporations when they’re not serving our democracy."

But Warren still emerged as a winner.

While she did not speak as much in the second half of the debate, she often returned to her core message of income inequality.

“What's been missing is courage, courage in Washington to take on the giants. That's part of the corruption in this system. It has been far too long that the monopolies have been making the campaign contributions, have been funding the super PACs, have been out there making sure that their influence is heard and felt in every single decision that gets made in Washington,” Warren said. “I want to return government to the people, and that means calling out the names of the monopolists and saying I have the courage to go after them.”