Ten candidates took the stage Wednesday night for the fifth Democratic debate. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) edged out the rest for the most talk time.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden followed closely behind, but that was in part due to time spent fending off attacks.
Biden was targeted the most across the night. Booker went after the former vice president’s stance on marijuana legalization, saying “This week I heard him literally say that I don't think we should legalize marijuana. I thought you might have been high when you said it.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) both challenged Buttigieg on his lack of federal experience. Gabbard, who has yet to qualify for the December debate, was on the attack throughout the night, also going after Harris over the state of the Democratic party.
Here’s how many times each candidate was attacked during tonight’s debate, based on data tracked by NBC News.
Which candidates were attacked the most?
President Trump and the impeachment hearings loomed large over the debate. The president received the most attacks of any debate since the second night of the second debate on July 31, according to data from NBC News.
Here’s how often the candidates onstage went after the president.
How each candidate stood out
As in past debates, early attention on Warren focused on her commitment to Medicare-for-all. Facing increased pressure in recent weeks, the senator from Massachusetts released a financing plan for her health-care proposal that included some tax increases on large corporations and the very wealthy, then a “transition” plan that critics — especially Bernie Sanders supporters — said amounted to backing away from Medicare-for-all.
There were some oblique criticisms of the feasibility of Warren’s plans, but for the most part, the moderators moved on quickly from health care. Perhaps more notable was the moment that didn’t happen: Sanders refrained from outright attacking Warren on Medicare-for-all, maintaining the united liberal front the two have put forth, at least onstage, through one more debate.
For the rest of the debate, Warren emphasized themes of rooting out corruption and unity — at one point outlining a national service plan — perhaps in anticipation that she would be criticized again for being too polarizing to win a general election.
“We want to build an America that works for the people, not just one that works for rich folks,” she said.
Having surged in Iowa, risen in New Hampshire and stagnated in South Carolina, Buttigieg entered this debate as the likely focus of criticism from other candidates — but most of his opponents avoided direct attacks on the mayor, instead using them as opportunities to make broader points.
When Amy Klobuchar was asked if she thought Buttigieg benefited from male privilege, she demurred and said she thought he was qualified — but that women were held to a higher standard. Even Kamala D. Harris passed up on a chance to knock Buttigieg for his low support among black voters, and instead talked generally about how Democratic candidates have long taken for granted constituents who have been the “backbone” of the party.
Buttigieg, meanwhile, also eased off on the aggressive attacks he made in the last debate. Instead, he used his talking time to cast himself as a Washington outsider from a racially diverse city.
“There’s over 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and look where we are as a country,” he said. “I have the experience of bringing people together to get something done.”
After a series of lackluster debate performances and a recent Iowa poll that suggested his campaign is losing ground there, the former vice president spent Wednesday’s debate emphasizing again and again the issue of electability. He argued that he’s the best positioned of anyone in the field to defeat President Trump and to help Democrats retain control of the U.S. House and win back the Senate.
“You have to ask yourself up here, who is most likely to be able to win the nomination in the first place?” Biden said. “You have to win the presidency in the first place.”
Biden also pointed to his decades of foreign policy experience, arguing that Democrats have to nominate someone who is ready to go on “day one” to mend foreign relationships strained in the era of Trump. “I know every world leader. They know me,” Biden said.
He notably stumbled when touting his popularity among black voters, saying he had the support of “the only African American woman who had ever been elected to the United States Senate” — prompting an incredulous Harris to interject: “No. That’s not true. The other one is here!”
The senator from Vermont was asked about former president Barack Obama’s recent assessment that voters don’t want to “tear down the system and remake it” — a comment widely interpreted as a swipe at Medicare-for-all. Sanders was careful not to criticize Obama, but made clear that he disagreed with the former president.
“He’s right. We don’t have to tear down the system, but we do have to do what the American people want. And the American people understand today that the current health-care system is not only cruel, it is dysfunctional,” Sanders said. “If you think back to FDR and if you think back to JFK and Harry Truman and Barack Obama, as a matter of fact, people have been talking about health care for all. Well, you know what? I think now is the time.”
At one point, Sanders defended the Democrats on impeachment, suggesting the party can “can walk and chew gum at the same time.” “We can deal with Trump’s corruption, but we also have to stand up for the working families of this country,” he said. “We can do it all when we rally the American people in the cause of justice.”
Booker, the former Newark mayor who has campaigned on a message of “radical love” and largely avoided going negative in past debates, seized on a moment early on to spar (albeit sunnily) with Warren, calling her proposed wealth tax on the ultrawealthy “cumbersome” and “hard to evaluate.”
Several times, Booker also differentiated himself from Buttigieg in subtle ways, noting he was “mayor of the largest city in my state,” a clear knock on South Bend, the fourth-largest city in Indiana.
“I happen to be the other Rhodes Scholar mayor on this stage,” Booker added. Later, Booker expounded on the importance of nominating a candidate who has an authentic connection with black voters. He also zinged Joe Biden for saying recently he didn’t think marijuana should be legalized.
“No one on this stage should need a focus group to hear from African American voters.” “I thought you might have been high when you said it!” Booker told the former vice president, only half jokingly. “Marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people. The war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people.”
The senator from California has steadily lost ground in the polls since her clash with Biden over issues of race at the first debate in June.
Seeking to regain momentum, she released an ad just before Wednesday’s debate touting her record as a prosecutor and presenting herself as the opposite of Trump “in every possible way.” And onstage, she repeatedly emphasized her ability to appeal to and unite different parts of the Democratic Party, including “overlooked” constituencies such as women of color.
“We’ve got to re-create the Obama coalition to win. And that means women. That’s people of color. That’s our LGBTQ community. That’s working people. That’s our labor unions,” she said. “That is how we are going to win this election.”
The two-term senator from Minnesota recently threw shade at Buttigieg, suggesting a female candidate with his level of experience would never make it to the debate stage. Asked about the comment, Klobuchar praised Buttigieg but stood by her statement. “Women are held to a higher standard. Otherwise, we could play a game called ‘Name Your Favorite Woman President,’ which we can’t do because it has been all men,” Klobuchar said.
“Any working woman out there, any woman at home knows exactly what I mean. We have to work harder, and that’s a fact.” She argued that gender shouldn’t be a factor in who makes a good president. “What matters is if you’re smart, if you’re competent and if you get things done,” Klobuchar said. “And if you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump: Nancy Pelosi does it every day.”
The congresswoman from Hawaii seemed to be galvanized in recent weeks after calling Hillary Clinton the “personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party,” remarks she was asked about onstage. Gabbard, who has since regularly been bashing Clinton and “the establishment” in fundraising emails and on Fox News, continued her criticism of her own party.
“Our Democratic Party, unfortunately, is not the party that is of, by and for the people,” Gabbard said.
Gabbard later got roundly rebuffed by both Harris and Buttigieg for meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Buttigieg said he questioned her judgment that she would sit down “with a murderous dictator like that.”
As she had in the past, Gabbard stood by her decision.
“I will meet with and do what is necessary” to end regime-change wars, she said.
This was the billionaire candidate’s second debate appearance, and he used much of his speaking time to reintroduce himself to the electorate. Steyer originally launched his campaign on the strength of his push for Trump’s impeachment, but Wednesday tried to rebrand his candidacy as one centered on “structural change” in Washington. He claimed that he was the only person onstage who would talk about term limits and said that climate change was his “number-one priority.”
A political newcomer with an intense online following, Yang regularly attracts some of the largest crowds in the race, support that has helped him outlast several better-known Democrats and kept him on the debate stage. Still, Yang has struggled to be taken seriously, even as other candidates in the race, such as Biden, have recently seized upon some of the issues he’s raised, including the impact of automation on job loss in small-town America.
At one point, Yang was asked what he would say in his first phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, if elected. “First, I’d say, ‘I’m sorry I beat your guy,’ ” Yang said. “Second, I would say, ‘The days of meddling in American elections are over and we will take any undermining of our democratic processes as an act of hostility and aggression.’ The American people would back me on this. We know that they’ve found an underbelly and they’ve been clawing at it, and it’s made it so that we can’t even trust our own democracy.”
By Ted Mellnik, Kate Rabinowitz, Kevin Schaul, Ashlyn Still, Amy B Wang and Holly Bailey.
About this story
This graphic was produced in collaboration with NBC News. To see what they're tracking for the fifth Democratic debate, go here. The Post tracked about how much time each candidate spent talking. When multiple candidate spoke over one another, neither was awarded time. Candidate illustrations by Ben Kirchner.
Originally published Nov. 20, 2019.