5 takeaways from fiery Democratic debate

The third Democratic debate in Houston on Thursday night featured former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Americans debate life under COVID-19 risks Biden set to make risky economic argument against Trump Hillicon Valley: Tech companies lead way on WFH forever | States and counties plead for cybersecurity assistance | Trump weighing anti-conservative bias panel MORE playing defense yet again, as a handful of his rivals in the Democratic presidential nominating contest took turns bludgeoning him with critiques of his record — and, in one case, his memory.

But Biden appeared more incisive in his responses this time around, even landing a few counter-punches as he sought to hold on to his status as the primary contest’s front-runners.

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That was only part of a showdown that lasted nearly three hours and featured a winnowed field of candidates.

Here are five takeaways from the presidential debate:

Biden holds ground amid a barrage of attacks

Biden held his ground as his opponents sought to swipe at his front-runner status, taking aim at a number of his policies including health care and immigration.

Biden also went on offense against progressive Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPentagon charts its own course on COVID-19, risking Trump's ire Warren to host high-dollar fundraiser for Biden It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersHillicon Valley: Tech companies lead way on WFH forever | States and counties plead for cybersecurity assistance | Trump weighing anti-conservative bias panel Biden wins Hawaii primary Warren to host high-dollar fundraiser for Biden MORE (I-Vt.), cornering the two senators on health care, saying their "Medicare for All" plans would bankrupt the government and increase taxes on everyday Americans.

The former vice president even went as far as to call Sanders a “socialist.”

Biden’s performance appeared considerably stronger than the past two Democratic debates, where Biden appeared to be slower to respond to attacks, and rarely went on the offensive. The former vice president was also not afraid to continue to tout and defend his record in the Obama administration, despite criticism from others on stage.

Warren acts like a front-runner

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) remained quiet for large stretches of the debate — and that may not have been a bad thing.

As other candidates on stage argued over health care, immigration and, at one point, whether they should even be arguing, Warren was a calm, commanding presence that chimed in only when addressed by the moderators.

Unlike Sanders, the other leading progressive on stage, Warren avoided much of the criticism from more moderate contenders, who repeatedly jabbed the Vermont senator over his Medicare for All proposal. And unlike Biden, her record and age remained untouched in the debate.

In short, Warren acted like a front-runner. She hovered above the fray and avoided taking damage from her rivals, and she did not pick any fights of her own.

Whether her debate performance boosts her standing in the polls remains to be seen. But it’s also unlikely to hurt her and may very strengthen her position as a front-runner.

Obama legacy comes to forefront

Former President Obama’s legacy was brought up and debated frequently throughout the night. Biden continued to tout his ties to Obama, notably telling Warren in the beginning of the debate that she was for Bernie, and he was “for Barack” on health care.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro threw one of the most notable punches at Biden, accusing him of not fulfilling former President Obama’s legacy on health care. The remark prompted Biden to say, “That’ll be a surprise to him [Obama].”

Biden also faced questions on Obama’s immigration record, which has been a target for progressives in the party. When pressed by moderator Jorge Ramos on whether the Obama administration made a mistake by carrying out mass deportations, Biden responded by saying, "The president did the best thing that was able to be done at the time"

The July debates demonstrated that Obama’s legacy proved to be a dividing point in the party, despite the former president’s widespread popularity among Democrats.

Thursday’s forum showed that Obama’s legacy will continue to be questioned within the Democratic presidential primary.

O'Rourke has a good night, but does it matter?

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) received praise for his performance on Thursday, in particular for his comments on gun control. He notably defended his mandatory assault weapons buyback proposal, saying, "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We're not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”

O’Rourke also continued to use the mass shooting in his home town of El Paso, Texas, last month to illustrate his personal connection to this issue, as well as to go after President TrumpDonald John TrumpMulvaney: 'We've overreacted a little bit' to coronavirus Former CBS News president: Most major cable news outlets 'unrelentingly liberal' in 'fear and loathing' of Trump An old man like me should be made more vulnerable to death by COVID-19 MORE. O’Rourke has focused extensively on gun control since the attacks, and his overall response to the mass shooting last month earned him the praise of a number of his opponents on stage, including Biden and Harris.

However, O’Rourke’s recent singular focus on gun control and combatting racism does not appear to have helped him gain traction in the polls. A CNN poll released on Wednesday showed the former congressman at just 5 percent support among voters.

Additionally, former Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellGrenell says intelligence community working to declassify Flynn-Kislyak transcripts The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump visits a ventilator plant in a battleground state Swalwell launching voter registration push MORE (D-Calif.) and Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeWashington state bishops respond to Trump's push to reopen churches: 'We will wait' Trump takes pandemic fight to Michigan FEMA coronavirus supplies arrive mislabeled, slowing down state use: report MORE (D) demonstrated that running on a single issue isn’t a winning formula: both dropped out after never gaining traction in the race.

Tonight doesn't change a thing

Neither of the first two debates appeared to yield any sustained changes in the shape of the Democratic presidential field, and the third debate is likely to follow suit.

Biden, Sanders and Warren have largely cemented their positions at the front of the pack, and none of the candidates polling behind them managed to land the kind of critical blow that might threaten their standings in the race.

And while some middle-to-lower-tier candidates had good nights — O’Rourke stood out in the gun control debate and Klobuchar delivered an incisive blow against Sanders’s Medicare for All bill — none had the kind of standout moment that has elevated other candidates in the past.

“Tonight, all three frontrunners had strong nights that likely won’t fundamentally alter the top-tier of the contest,” said Charles Chamberlain, the chairman of the liberal PAC Democracy for America, in an email to reporters.