Democrats debate in Houston: Who came out on top?

HOUSTON — Ten Democratic presidential candidates squared off at a debate on Thursday night in Houston, where divisions over the path forward for the party were on full display.

Here’s a look at how the candidates fared over the course of three hours at Texas Southern University, listed by their standings in national polls

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters George Conway: Witness missing from impeachment trial is Trump MORE

Nothing happened on Thursday night to fundamentally change the nature of the race, making it a positive night for Biden, who has been running atop the field of Democrats for months now, even as many in Washington have braced for his collapse.


Biden was steady, up for a fight and avoided any of the embarrassing gaffes that have plagued him on the trail.

The conventional wisdom heading into the debate was that there was no need for the front-runner to go on the attack, but Biden came out swinging at Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Des Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial MORE (D-Mass.), warning that their "Medicare for All" plan would raise taxes on middle class families and bankrupt the government.

And if the three-hour debate was an endurance test for the 76-year-old, he seemed to grow stronger as the night wore on.

In the debate’s third hour, Biden vigorously went over his allotted time, after repeatedly cutting himself off in the prior debates.

“I’m going to go like the rest of them do, twice over,” Biden declared, in reference to other candidates who spoke beyond their allotted time.

One of Biden’s strongest moments came toward the end, when talked about the heartbreak he experienced in losing his wife and daughter to a car accident and his son to a brain tumor.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Sanders was on-brand as always, playing the same hits that propelled his unlikely challenge to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Clinton says Zuckerberg has 'authoritarian' views on misinformation Des Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee MORE in 2016.

But Sanders appeared to be hoarse or battling a cold, and it was a struggle for him at times to get his thoughts out with the usual emphasis.

And hitting the same notes from 2016 hasn’t been much of a winner for Sanders so far, as voters shop around for new options, such as Warren.

Still, Sanders was good for a few zingers as he drew a contrast between himself and Biden.

He repeatedly turned to the former vice president to say, “I strongly disagree, Joe.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Warren was steady on Thursday night, sticking to the script and refusing to be drawn into a confrontation with Biden, who tried to pick a fight with her on Medicare for All.

Instead, Warren stayed focused on the themes that have propelled her into the top tier of candidates — income inequality, universal health care and student loan debt.

Warren could benefit from staying above the fray, as she had the appearance of a front-runner who won’t be drawn into intra-party squabbles.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris on 2020 endorsement: 'I am not thinking about it right now' Panel: Is Kamala Harris a hypocrite for mulling a Joe Biden endorsement? The Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power MORE (D-Calif.)

All in all it was a strong night for Harris, who was more at ease in a debate where she didn’t seem pressured to be leading the attacks against Biden.

The California Democrat instead directed her ire at Trump, opening with a direct-to-camera statement to the president about how he had “used hate, division and fear” to distract from his “failed polices and broken promises.”

“Now you can go back to watching Fox News,” Harris quipped, provoking laughter from the audience.

Later, Harris said that “Trump didn’t pull the trigger” in El Paso, Texas, “but he’s been tweeting out the ammunition.”

And she likened Trump to the wizard in “The Wizard of Oz,” saying that when you pull back the curtain you see that “it’s a really small dude.”

Harris also adequately handled questions about her record as attorney general of California, arguing that she pursued that path in order to change the system from the inside.

It was a nice recovery after being blindsided by an attack from Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardJoe Rogan says he's probably voting for Bernie Sanders Gabbard tells Fox that Clinton's 'Russian asset' remark is 'taking my life away' Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Bezos phone breach raises fears over Saudi hacking | Amazon seeks to halt Microsoft's work on 'war cloud' | Lawmakers unveil surveillance reform bill MORE (D-Hawaii) at the previous debate.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Candidates weighing using private jets to get to Iowa Biden nabs endorsement from Iowa Democrat in swing district MORE

Buttigieg was steady, but he was one of several candidates who seemed to be operating in the background all night.

The mayor had several strong moments, talking about his experience as a Navy intelligence officer in Afghanistan; the “generational theft of slavery;” and how he would level the playing field for racial minorities.

Buttigieg also sought to be the adult in the room, telling his rivals that their bickering was rendering the debates “unwatchable” and “reminding everyone why they hate Washington.”

But it seemed like his most memorable moment of the night was in response to tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial John Leguizamo joins the 'Yang Gang' CNN to host two straight nights of Democratic town halls before NH primary MORE’s declaration that he’d give 10 people in the U.S. $10,000 this year as a test run for a universal basic income.

Buttigieg looked puzzled and said, “That’s original, I’ll give you that.”

Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang

Yang is not a very polished public speaker, creating a negative contrast between himself and the more experienced debaters on stage next to him.

Instead, the tech entrepreneur has gotten this far by pluck, charm and media savvy.

On Thursday night, Yang grabbed headlines by telling viewers they could sign up on his website to be one of 10 families his campaign would give $12,000 this year as a case study for his proposed universal basic income.

Yang also proposed giving every citizen $100 “democracy dollars" to donate to campaigns, saying it would eliminate corporate influence over the electoral process.

Those ideas will likely drive huge numbers of people to his website, but probably won’t bring many new mainstream Democrats to his outsider campaign.

Still, it will be interesting to see if the insurgent buzz around him continues to grow, even as it baffles Washington insiders.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas)

O’Rourke might have had one of the best nights of anyone on stage.

The Texas Democrat was in front of a friendly home crowd in Houston, and rival after rival lined up to praise his leadership on gun control after the racially-charged mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso last month.

O’Rourke leaned into his proposal for a “mandatory buyback,” which has split the Democratic field.

“Hell yes, we’re taking your AR-16 and your AK-47,” O’Rourke said. “It won’t be used to kill our fellow Americans any more.”

It may end up being too little too late for O’Rourke, whose fundraising has dried up as his poll numbers have stalled.

But for one night at least, O’Rourke reminded Democrats about his promise as a candidate who can connect on an emotional level with voters.

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSenate Dems to Pompeo: Comments about NPR reporter 'insulting and contemptuous' Black caucus in Nevada: 'Notion that Biden has all of black vote is not true' The Hill's 12:30 Report: House managers to begin opening arguments on day two MORE (D-N.J.)

Booker earned scores of headlines for vigorously attacking Biden at the previous debates.

There was none of that on Thursday night, pushing Booker into the background for much of the debate.

Still, he had several strong moments that will remind Democrats about how he is an effective, quick-witted and charismatic communicator.

Booker repeatedly returned to personal stories about governing in the racially diverse city of Newark and about how the criminal justice system is “savagely broken.”

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial Moore defends Sanders's reputation: 'We don't want the fake, and the phony and the fraudulent' MORE (D-Minn.)

Klobuchar had several strong moments, demanding that Democrats “send a message to Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer: Trump's team made case for new witnesses 'even stronger' Trump, Democrats risk unintended consequences with impeachment arguments CNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group MORE” on gun reform and ripping Sanders’s Medicare for All bill.

“Bernie wrote the bill, but I read it,” Klobuchar said.

Still, Klobuchar’s night was unremarkable overall and it’s tough to see her path to the nomination as she tries to sell herself as the pragmatic centrist in a race where Biden is dominating that lane.

Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro

Castro bet big that going after Biden would be his best path to become a top contender.

The attacks were praised by progressives eager to see Biden taken down, but many Democrats viewed the attacks as nasty, unnecessary and hitting below the belt.

Castro brought Biden’s age and mental acuity to center stage, repeatedly accusing the former vice president of forgetting what he’d just said.

Later, Castro accused Biden of embracing Obama when it helped him and refusing to take responsibility for Obama’s policies when it is inconvenient for him.

“I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Former NYT correspondent rips Democrats' 'selective use' of constitutional violations Obama portraits leaving National Portrait Gallery to tour museums across the country MORE and you’re not,” Castro said.

Still, it seems unlikely that voters will view Castro, rather than Biden, as Obama’s standard bearer.

And Castro’s attacks provoked bickering among the candidates, who warned that the debate was devolving into an “unwatchable” spectacle.

Castro defended the attacks.

“It’s called a primary election,” he said.