Five takeaways from the first Democratic debate

MIAMI — The race for the Democratic presidential nomination shifted into top gear here on Wednesday night, with the first debate of the 2020 election cycle. 

Ten candidates took to the stage of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami. Another ten of their rivals will follow on Thursday.


Here are five takeaways from the inaugural Democratic showdown.

A big night for Warren

The one-sentence summary: Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — ObamaCare premiums dropping for 2020 | Warren, Buttigieg shift stances on 'Medicare for All' | Drug companies spend big on lobbying Mellman: Trumping peace and prosperity On The Money: Waters clashes with Trump officials over 'disastrous' housing finance plan | Dems jump into Trump turf war over student loans | House passes bill targeting anonymous shell companies MORE (Mass.) won.

Warren was particularly strong in the first half-hour of the debate, when her answers — forceful, succinct and substantive — set her apart from everyone else on stage.

During those crucial opening exchanges, Warren got to hit some of her favorite themes, including the misdeeds of the corporate world (“corruption, pure and simple”) and her advocacy of "Medicare for All." 

In making her case for the latter topic, she blasted health insurance companies for what she portrayed as gratuitous profiteering.

Other candidates were often asked about their own positions in relation to Warren’s — a move that highlighted her status as the dominant figure on stage.

Republicans seek to paint Warren as an overly bookish, professorial person, but she combated that image with an emotive answer on gun control — she referenced being asked by children how she would keep them safe if elected president — and a personal closing statement outlining her modest upbringing in Oklahoma.

Warren came into the debate with momentum. She accelerated even faster on Wednesday evening.


Castro has a breakout moment

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro has made immigration the central issue of his candidacy. 

Going into the debate, immigration was in the center of the news agenda for tragic reasons, notably a heartrending photo of the late Óscar Ramírez and his infant daughter Valeria, who drowned together trying to cross the Rio Grande.

Castro’s passion and detailed knowledge of the issue was readily apparent — and it may help him to become the breakout star of this debate.

Castro also got the better of rivals, notably former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas) on the topic. Castro accused O’Rourke of not having done his “homework” — one of several bad moments for the once-hyped O’Rourke.

According to an NBC News tweet, Google searches for Castro’s name spiked by a huge 2,400 percent on Wednesday evening. Going into the debate, he had been polling at less than 1 percent in the RealClearPolitics national average.

He is almost sure to get a boost. The question is how large it will be.

Democrats want red meat

Moderates always face a challenge in primaries, and that problem is especially acute during the tenure of President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Support for impeachment inches up in poll Fox News's Bret Baier calls Trump's attacks on media 'a problem' MORE, an intensely polarizing figure.

The strong audience reactions on Wednesday for Warren, Castro and, to some degree, New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioTwo members of far-right 'Proud Boys' sentenced to prison for part in New York street brawl New York City lawmakers vote to close Rikers Island jail by 2026 2020 Presidential Candidates MORE outlined activists’ appetite for unapologetic progressivism.

But the same dynamic was a real problem for Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharHillicon Valley: Zuckerberg would support delaying Libra | More attorneys general join Facebook probe | Defense chief recuses from 'war cloud' contract | Senate GOP blocks two election security bills | FTC brings case against 'stalking' app developer Senate Republicans block two election security bills Warren overtakes Sanders in new poll MORE (Minn.) who is hoping to appeal to moderates, and perhaps, disaffected Republicans.

Klobuchar’s skepticism about Medicare For All drew an icy silence in the hall, as did her cautious answer on decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings.

O’Rourke's evasiveness on whether he would favor a top personal tax rate of 70 percent was met with a similarly flat response.

It’s plausible that the broader TV audience might be warmer toward centrist candidates than the activists and party loyalists who make up a live debate crowd.

But it’s also possible that the atmosphere in the hall predicts a broader desire among Democrats for a more muscular approach.

If that is the case, it could ultimately spell trouble for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSupport for impeachment inches up in poll Overnight Defense: Trump's Syria envoy wasn't consulted on withdrawal | McConnell offers resolution urging Trump to rethink Syria | Diplomat says Ukraine aid was tied to political investigations Democrats say they have game changer on impeachment MORE, the current front-runner, as well as the likes of Klobuchar and O’Rourke.

Minor candidates struggle

With the exception of Castro, few second-tier candidates made much of a mark.

De Blasio perhaps did next best. 

The New York City mayor can sometimes seem low-wattage in his public appearances, but he was much more assertive and impassioned than usual as he made a pitch to the most left-wing voters in the primary.

The Democratic Party “has to be strong and bold and progressive,” he insisted at one point.

Others struggled. 

O’Rourke has never been known as a strong debater, and he had a particularly bad night, seeming to validate the most common criticism of him — that he is prone to vague generalizations and platitudes.

Former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyWarren, Yang fight over automation divides experts The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden camp faces new challenges Warren's surge brings new scrutiny to signature wealth tax MORE (Md.), Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeOvernight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate John Kerry calls out lack of climate questions at debate CNN catches heat for asking candidates about Ellen, Bush friendship at debate MORE, and Reps. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardHillary Clinton has said she'd consider 2020 race if she thought she could win: report Biden, Gabbard suffer hits to favorability after debate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Trump's impeachment plea to Republicans MORE (Hawaii) and Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden camp faces new challenges Third-quarter fundraising sets Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg apart The Hill's 12:30 Report: Hunter Biden speaks out amid Ukraine controversy MORE (Ohio) failed to achieve any real breakout moments.

The separation between serious candidates and also-rans became clearer than ever on Wednesday evening.

Trump was kept on the margins

One of the more surprising elements of the debate was that Trump was not particularly central to it.

Naturally, there were questions related to some of his policies and there were some jabs at him, particularly in closing remarks. 

But even many of the attacks had a pro forma quality. Democrats seemed more focused on making a positive case for their own candidacies than trying to prove who could punch harder at the president.

Trump himself was — by his standards — not particularly belligerent about the debate, perhaps because he was on Air Force One, en route to the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan. 

Trump took time to jab at the debate as “BORING!” on Twitter, and to hit NBC News for an admittedly embarrassing sound problem that briefly disrupted proceedings.

But he did nothing that really stole the spotlight from the Democrats — a fact that will suit those who are running to defeat him just fine.