Warren isn't leading polls, but at debate she looks like front-runner

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 stood at center stage Thursday night, leading in the polls and earning the most attention from ABC’s debate moderators and his rivals alike.

But Biden acted less like the front-runner than 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 (D-Mass.), the candidate emerging as Biden’s chief rival from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

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While many of the other candidates competed for audience attention with practiced zingers and dad jokes, Warren once again set much of the early agenda, defending her "Medicare for All" health care plan and swatting away the few attacks that came her way.

For weeks, the debate seemed to promise a much-anticipated showdown between Biden, who has led polls from the beginning of the race, and Warren, the upstart progressive who is slowly chipping away at his lead. 

Tellingly, when Biden was prompted to critique the Medicare for All plan that both Warren and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight 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 Tlaib to join Sanders at campaign rally in Detroit MORE (I-Vt.) have made cornerstones of their campaigns, Biden turned to Warren first — even though Sanders is the measure’s prime sponsor in the Senate.

But Biden, in the language of the Senate, barely poked at Warren, whom he called “my distinguished friend, the senator on my left.”

Through the more than two and a half hours that followed, that was the extent of their interaction, less a throw-down than a detente. 

Many of the other candidates took direct shots at Biden, including the night’s most aggressive attacks, from former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. Castro both questioned Biden’s mental capacity and his ability to build on the Affordable Care Act.

“I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSusan Rice: Lindsey Graham is 'a piece of s--t' Brennan's CIA a subject of Barr's review of Russia investigation: report Singer Maggie Rogers speaks out after she was sexually harassed onstage MORE, and you’re not,” Castro said.

“That’ll be a surprise to him,” Biden shot back.

“Come on guys,” businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangSaagar Enjeti: Warren, Buttigieg don't stand a chance against Trump Warren overtakes Sanders in new poll Poll: Biden leads Warren by 15 points in California MORE sighed.

Warren, by contrast, was one of four candidates who did not attack one of her onstage rivals. And, reflecting a frustration among some other Democratic campaigns who have failed either to match Warren’s steady rise or to land a jab on her, she was one of the few who was not attacked herself, with the lone exception of Biden’s gentle poke.

Through three rounds of debates, where others have found momentary success in lobbing broadsides at their rivals on stage, Warren has not. She has emerged as the most confident in her own agenda, and the most capable of setting the agenda to which the rest of the field responds.

On Thursday, where Biden consulted his notes and corrected himself, Warren parried skepticism over Medicare for All when a rival or a moderator raised a question. Where Biden studiously obeyed the time limits, Warren barreled through the yellow and red warning signs to land her final points.

Warren still trails Biden in most state and national polls, though many of those surveys show Biden’s advantage narrowing. Where Biden played defense, the other candidates seemed unable or unwilling to take on Warren directly.

That included Sanders, who stands the most to lose to his longtime friend as they both compete for votes among the most progressive set within the Democratic electorate. Sanders routinely turned to Biden, finger waving, nearly shouting. The one time he mentioned Warren, it was to amplify her point about the political power of the gun lobby.

Biden seemed pleased with the chance to contrast himself with Sanders, who began his second bid for president as something of a front-runner himself. Biden said Sanders was misguided for thinking an employer would give employees the savings they would reap from Medicare for All.

“For a socialist, you've got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do,” Biden quipped.

“Let us be clear, Joe, in the United States of America, we [are] spending twice as much per capita on health care as the Canadians or any other major country on earth,” Sanders said.

“This is America,” Biden responded.

“Yeah, but Americans don't want to pay twice as much as other countries,” Sanders shot back.

Three hours later, when ABC moderators said goodnight, Warren walked off stage, once again unscathed by rivals who barely attempted a shot at the woman who is acting like the front-runner.