Warren shines in first Democratic debate

MIAMI — Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders can gain ground by zeroing in on corruption Biden praises Buttigieg for criticizing GOP attacks: 'That's a good man' Warren enters crucial debate with big momentum 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 BidenTrump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage Schiff: Whistleblower testimony might not be necessary Trump warns Democrats will lose House seats over impeachment MORE, who is the front-runner, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders wishes Ocasio-Cortez happy birthday Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Sanders can gain ground by zeroing in on corruption MORE (I-Vt.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRepublicans wrestle with impeachment strategy Klobuchar takes shots at health and education plans supported by Sanders and Warren Kamala Harris to Trump Jr.: 'You wouldn't know a joke if one raised you' MORE (D-Calif.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegTrump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage Sanders can gain ground by zeroing in on corruption Biden praises Buttigieg for criticizing GOP attacks: 'That's a good man' 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 BookerRepublicans wrestle with impeachment strategy O'Rourke campaign says path to victory hinges on top 5 finishes in Iowa, Nevada O'Rourke raises .5 million in third quarter MORE (D-N.J.) and Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharRepublicans wrestle with impeachment strategy Klobuchar takes shots at health and education plans supported by Sanders and Warren O'Rourke campaign says path to victory hinges on top 5 finishes in Iowa, Nevada 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 ToddRand Paul calls for probe of Democrats over Ukraine letter White House officials stand by Syria withdrawal, sanctions delay amid bipartisan pushback Sunday shows — Officials rush to Trump's defense on Syria, sanctions 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 Inslee2020 Presidential Candidates Warren environmental justice plan focuses third of climate investment on disadvantaged communities Poll: Warren closing in on Biden's lead with climate-focused voters 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) John Ryan2020 Presidential Candidates Democrats decry Trump's push to slash number of accepted refugees Harris on whistleblower complaint: 'This is a cover-up' MORE (D-Ohio) and Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardGabbard slams New York Times profile of her Krystal Ball defends praise of Yang: I am not 'a Russian plant' Gabbard backs Sanders proposal to ban advertisements during primary debates MORE (D-Hawaii) and former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin Delaney2020 Presidential Candidates Delaney: I wouldn't allow VP's family members to sit on foreign boards Candidates wish Sanders well after heart procedure 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 Blasio2020 Presidential Candidates Cooperate, or else: New York threatens fines to force people to help block immigration enforcement DNC raises qualifying thresholds for fifth presidential debate 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.”