Five takeaways: Fear of Trump hangs over Democratic debate

Seven Democratic candidates took to the debate stage Friday evening at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., just days before the state's vital primary.

What were the key takeaways?

Fear of Trump casts long shadow

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Democrats are grappling with a new realization of just how close November’s election could be. 

The New Hampshire debate came at the end of a week that saw the impeachment process end in President TrumpDonald John TrumpFed saw risks to US economy fading before coronavirus spread quickened Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Britain announces immigration policy barring unskilled migrants MORE’s acquittal by the Senate, and Trump hitting his highest approval rating yet in a Gallup poll. In tandem, Democrats suffered a fiasco in Iowa, where the final results of the caucuses held on Monday evening are still not clear.

The apparent rise in Trump’s chances of reelection is fraying Democrats’ nerves and focusing their minds.

One consequence on Friday was a reluctance to deepen party disunity. 

There were some tense moments — particularly between the two front-runners, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Biden will go after Bloomberg, Sanders at Las Vegas debate, aides say MORE (I-Vt.) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll 2020 Democratic candidates support Las Vegas casino workers on debate day What to watch in the debate tonight MORE (D). But the sparks never threatened to become a fire.

Comity was the order of the day. 

Sanders at one point expressed a wish that he and 2016 nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton asked if she'd be Bloomberg's vice president: 'Oh no' Trump launches three-day campaign rally blitz Free Roger Stone MORE could come together, despite her recent sharp criticisms of him.

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At another moment, Sanders and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Biden will go after Bloomberg, Sanders at Las Vegas debate, aides say MORE placed their arms around each other’s shoulders. For her part, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll 2020 Democratic candidates support Las Vegas casino workers on debate day Sanders takes lead in new Hill/HarrisX poll MORE (D-Mass.) declined to hit Sanders hard on their differences, instead emphasizing the length of their friendship.

The debate was not all sweetness and light.

Buttigieg made the argument that Sanders was too divisive and prone to a “my way or the highway” approach. 

The Vermont senator later assailed the former mayor for the number of billionaires supporting him. 

And Warren, in one of her most effective moments of the night, blasted Buttigieg for his record on policing and racial justice.

But, overall, no one really took the gloves off — for fear, presumably, that hitting each other would only help the current occupant of the White House.

Electability is (still) the big question

The dominant question in the Democratic nomination process has been the same from the start: Who is best positioned to beat Trump?

On Friday night, Buttigieg sought to cast his rivals as part of the status quo, and argued that his ability to “turn the page” could be crucial. He also argued that his focus on civility could bring new voters into the Democratic fold. It was a time “for addition, not rejection; belonging, not exclusion,” he said.

Sanders made his own case for electability. He argued that his brand of left-wing populism could be effective because “the way you bring people together is by presenting an agenda that works for the working people of this country, not for the billionaire class.”

Variations on those arguments were deployed by other candidates, too. 

Warren, who has recently sought to present herself as a more unifying figure than before, said that her focus on rooting out corruption would appeal to Republican voters. Biden talked up his ability to bring Democrats back into the Senate majority as well as winning back the White House. Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean Klobuchar2020 Democratic candidates support Las Vegas casino workers on debate day Democratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe What to watch in the debate tonight MORE (D-Minn.) emphasized her strong electoral record and modest Midwestern roots as assets in connecting with voters.

The question of whether the centrism espoused by Buttigieg, Biden and Klobuchar is more in line with the nation’s appetites than the sweeping changes sought by Sanders and Warren remains the biggest fault line in the nominating process.

Buttigieg and Sanders stay the course

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The one key outcome from Iowa was the way the caucuses separated Buttigieg and Sanders from the rest of the field.

Their strong performances in that state meant that they could have been targeted by their rivals, or have torn each other down, during the debate.

Neither of those things happened, at least in any significant, game-changing way. 

Each made his case and avoided any obvious gaffe that could have derailed his momentum. 

In the most recent polls of New Hampshire, the two sit atop the polls, with Sanders maintaining his lead but Buttigieg surging. 

That being so, they will be happy enough to have come through Friday’s debate with no reason to expect the fundamentals of the race to change.

Second-tier candidates struggle to make an impact

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No one had a disastrous debate on Friday night. Equally, however, none of the candidates lit up the stage or delivered the kind of standout, viral moment that has the potential to reshape the primary.

That’s fine for Sanders and Buttigieg but a lot more problematic for everyone else.

Biden, who trailed in fourth in Iowa, acknowledged in the debate’s opening stages that he was unlikely to win in New Hampshire. On stage, Biden showed the same pluses (experience and affability) and the same negatives (a lack of incisiveness and a tendency to meander) as he has throughout this cycle.

Warren, a strong debater, laid out her case effectively. But it was largely the same case that voters have already heard — one which delivered a decent but not earth-shattering third-place finish in Iowa.

Klobuchar had some powerful moments — perhaps none more so than her closing argument, where she contrasted her own capacity for empathy with Trump’s “complete lack” of it.

The Minnesotan has had good debates before, however, without them radically transforming her chances.

A good night for moderators

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The old axiom about sports referees is also true of debate moderators: They tend to have done their job well if they’re not noticed very much.

On Friday, the main moderators from ABC News — George StephanopoulosGeorge Robert StephanopoulosWhile Klobuchar surges, Warren flounders The Hill's Morning Report - Sanders, Buttigieg do battle in New Hampshire Democrats ramp up attacks on opponents in final pitch before New Hampshire MORE, Linsey Davis and David Muir — kept things flowing smoothly, without reaching for cheap “gotcha” moments. The same was true of Monica Hernandez and Adam Sexton, representing New Hampshire affiliate WMUR.

There was one moment that did earn broader attention — for the right reasons. 

After Buttigieg skated away from an initial question about an increase in black arrests for marijuana possession during his time as mayor, Davis pursued the point firmly. It was so striking that Davis earned spontaneous applause from the audience, a rarity for any moderator.

As that exchange ended, Davis turned to Warren, asking whether Buttigieg had “given a substantial answer.”

“No,” the Massachusetts senator replied, to more applause.