Warren shines in first Democratic debate

MIAMI — Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren declines to disavow super PAC that supports her San Diego Union-Tribune endorses Buttigieg 'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate 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 Biden'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate Sanders nabs endorsement from Congressional Hispanic Caucus member Poll: Sanders holds 7-point lead in crucial California primary MORE, who is the front-runner, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersNevada Democratic debate draws record-breaking 19.7 million viewers 'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate Ocasio-Cortez defends Warren against 'misogynist trope' MORE (I-Vt.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi Harris5 takeaways from Las Vegas debate California lawmakers mark Day of Remembrance for Japanese internment Democratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe MORE (D-Calif.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' San Diego Union-Tribune endorses Buttigieg 'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate 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 Anthony BookerDemocratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe CNN signs Andrew Yang as contributor Bloomberg qualifies for South Carolina primary debate MORE (D-N.J.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharWarren declines to disavow super PAC that supports her San Diego Union-Tribune endorses Buttigieg 'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate 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 ToddThe Hill's Morning Report - Democrats duke it out during Nevada debate Former skeptics now warning of brokered convention 'nightmare' for Democrats Bloomberg hits progressive rivals at debate: 'We're not going to throw out capitalism' 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 InsleeAndrew Yang ends presidential bid Bloomberg, Steyer focus on climate change in effort to stand out Our government and public institutions must protect us against the unvaccinated 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) RyanDemocrats tear into Trump's speech: It was a 'MAGA rally' Democrats walk out of Trump's address: 'It's like watching professional wrestling' Trump set to confront his impeachment foes MORE (D-Ohio) and Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardBloomberg, Sanders, Biden beat Trump in head-to-heads in North Carolina: poll Sanders takes lead in new Hill/HarrisX poll The Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg to face off with rivals at Nevada debate MORE (D-Hawaii) and former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyLobbying world The Hill's Campaign Report: Four-way sprint to Iowa finish line John Delaney drops out of presidential race, Krystal and Saagar react 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 BlasioBloomberg compared civil libertarians, teachers union to NRA 'extremists' in 2013: report De Blasio endorses Sanders for president While Klobuchar surges, Warren flounders 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.”