Five takeaways from the Democratic debate

The final Democratic debate of 2019 took place in Los Angeles on Thursday, with less than two months to go before the Iowa caucuses. 

What were the main takeaways?

Buttigieg vs. Warren was the big moment

There was only one moment of real heat in a largely civil debate.  

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegDemocratic presidential candidates react to Trump impeachment: ‘No one is above the law’ Donald Glover to hold campaign event with Andrew Yang Buttigieg slips in new national poll MORE and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDemocratic presidential candidates react to Trump impeachment: ‘No one is above the law’ Trump invokes son Barron while attacking Warren at rally Overnight Energy: Fish and Wildlife Service to review allegations over Trump Jr.’s Mongolian hunting trip | Groups challenge EPA decision on slaughterhouse rules | Greenpeace gives Bloomberg D-plus on climate MORE (D-Mass.) tangled at length over the influence of big-money donors.

The row has been brewing for a while, with the two candidates aiming pointed comments at each other on the campaign trail. On Thursday night, it flared up face-to-face. 

The core issue is Warren having sworn off high-dollar fundraisers and Buttigieg continuing to embrace them.

At the debate, Warren referred to her renowned willingness to take selfies with people who attend her rallies and said, “Those selfies cost nobody anything. People who can put down $5,000 to get a picture taken don’t have the same priorities.” 

Buttigieg immediately fired back that he couldn’t “help but feel that might have been directed at me.” 

The South Bend mayor defended his approach by noting that President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublican group targets Graham in ad calling for fair Senate trial Democratic presidential candidates react to Trump impeachment: ‘No one is above the law’ Trump attacks Schumer at fiery rally in Michigan MORE already has a vast campaign bank account and that Democrats should not “fight with one hand tied behind our back.”

The exchange only got more personal from there, with Buttigieg noting that Warren was much wealthier than him, and the Massachusetts senator excoriating Buttigieg for holding a lavish fundraiser in a Napa Valley “wine cave.” 

There was no clear-cut winner from the fiery back-and-forth. Warren pressed her attacks and Buttigieg offered a stout defense, doing his best to turn the issue back on his rival by noting she had held big fundraisers during her Senate campaign last year.

The subtext here is that each candidate is desperate to best the other in Iowa. 

Buttigieg has been on the rise recently and there is some polling evidence that he has taken supporters from a cohort — highly educated white people — that had previously been enthused by Warren.

Still, the friction between the two also offered others the chance of present themselves as above the fray. 

Exchanges between former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDemocratic presidential candidates react to Trump impeachment: ‘No one is above the law’ Trump rallies supporters as he becomes third president to be impeached On The Trail: A historic vote that defines legacies MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocratic presidential candidates react to Trump impeachment: ‘No one is above the law’ Overnight Energy: Fish and Wildlife Service to review allegations over Trump Jr.’s Mongolian hunting trip | Groups challenge EPA decision on slaughterhouse rules | Greenpeace gives Bloomberg D-plus on climate Saagar Enjeti dismisses new Biden campaign ad as ‘Hillary Clinton 2.0’ MORE (I-Vt.) had a lighter, bantering quality. 

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharDemocratic presidential candidates react to Trump impeachment: ‘No one is above the law’ Donald Glover to hold campaign event with Andrew Yang Buttigieg slips in new national poll MORE (D-Minn.) presented herself as someone more interested in bringing the party together than in squabbling with her colleagues — a potent appeal to Democrats desperate to defeat Trump 11 months from now.

Biden brings a new sharpness 

Biden had his best debate of this election cycle.

On other occasions, the former vice president has been meandering and gaffe-prone, raising questions about whether he is up to the rigors of a full-tilt presidential campaign at age 77. 

There was none of that in Los Angeles.

Biden was sure-footed throughout, effectively making the basic rationale for his candidacy — that he is the best candidate to beat Trump, in part because of his instinctive understanding of middle-class concerns.

Trying to turn back criticism that he has an overly generous view of Republicans in Washington, Biden said that he had more right than most to be angry with the GOP given “the way they’ve attacked me, my family” — a reference to his son Hunter Biden who worked for a Ukrainian energy company.

Biden remains at the top of national polls. His performance on Thursday should maintain that resilience.

Klobuchar shines

Klobuchar, who has been moving up in polls in Iowa, also had a strong showing Thursday. 

She laid out her differences with Sanders on the United State-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) early on — she is for it, Sanders against. 

She also delivered strong responses on climate change and voter protection.

In the debate’s later stages, Klobuchar made her case for more incremental health care reform than the “Medicare for All” approach favored by Warren and Sanders, arguing that it is possible to be “progressive and practical at the same time” — as good a summary of her campaign as she has articulated to date. 

There are big questions about whether the Democratic electorate right now really wants the kind of steady centrism in which Klobuchar specializes. But she commanded plenty of airtime Thursday and made the case that she should be considered a major candidate. 

Smaller stage makes for better debate 

This was the smallest number of candidates at any Democratic debate this year — and it seemed to help everyone.

There were only seven candidates on the stage this time, whereas previous clashes have had 10 or more. That allowed more time for substantive answers across a host of issues including reparations, gender and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as staples such as health care and trade.

It also allowed candidates like Klobuchar and tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangDonald Glover to hold campaign event with Andrew Yang Buttigieg slips in new national poll Former health insurance executive: Yang’s health care proposal is ‘far too limited’ MORE to get their views heard. 

The four moderators — PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, Amna Nawaz and Judy Woodruff, along with Politico’s Tim Alberta — also played their part in keeping proceedings on the rails.

The only losers from the format were those candidates who did not make it to the stage, including Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDemocratic presidential candidates react to Trump impeachment: ‘No one is above the law’ Hillicon Valley: House panel unveils draft of privacy bill | Senate committee approves bill to sanction Russia | Dems ask HUD to review use of facial recognition | Uber settles sexual harassment charges for .4M On The Money: Senate chairman opposes cannabis banking bill | Panel advances Trump pick for Small Business Administration | Judge tosses NY state fraud charges against Manafort MORE (D-N.J.), former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergDemocratic presidential candidates react to Trump impeachment: ‘No one is above the law’ Overnight Energy: Fish and Wildlife Service to review allegations over Trump Jr.’s Mongolian hunting trip | Groups challenge EPA decision on slaughterhouse rules | Greenpeace gives Bloomberg D-plus on climate Bloomberg attacks Biden’s experience: ‘He’s never been the manager of an organization’ MORE (D) and Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardDemocratic presidential candidates react to Trump impeachment: ‘No one is above the law’ Trump rallies supporters as he becomes third president to be impeached Gabbard votes ‘present’ on impeaching Trump MORE (D-Hawaii).

A gaffe-free zone

The most memorable moments in debates often come when a candidate makes an egregious error.

There was none obvious during Thursday’s debate. Some candidates fared less well than others — Warren has been more effective on other occasions — but no one had a truly bad night nor created a moment of viral doom.

The candidates will settle for that as they ready themselves for the post-holiday sprint into Iowa and New Hampshire.

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