1. Sen. Elizabeth Warren: Her anti-corporation theme is clear. Her railing against insurance companies is effective. She is not precise about any issue, but her determination comes through. She is a dominant personality. Warren is on the ball. She is the best natural candidate in the field. You get the sense that she is up to the job.
2. Sen. Bernie Sanders: Consistent. His admonition to Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio), “I wrote the damn bill,” cut through the noise. He is actually well spoken. Sanders is an experienced candidate and experience is valuable — and he is more mentally agile than former vice president Joe Biden.
3. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Again, Buttigieg came across as the overly earnest staff guy. He comes across as a clerk, not a president, and will no doubt be a Cabinet officer in the next Democratic administration. His positions are thoughtful and well organized. But nothing in Tuesday night’s debate, or outside of it, is going to make him a front-runner.
4. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.): No better than fourth. She was consistently in the weeds. She doesn’t do anything very well, but she doesn’t stumble. That said, she never made a clear point. She needed to say something big, but she did not. She is so boring that she is credible. But she is also so boring that she does not have any adhesiveness. She has no emotional appeal. Klobuchar’s rehearsed spiel on gun control was effective, but she talked like a senator, not a president. The window for her to establish herself is closing.
5. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.): Beto, I’ve a feeling we are not in Texas anymore. His pointless quest for higher office has become painful to watch. If Buttigieg comes across as the smart guy you meet with in Washington when the boss is unavailable, Beto is the hometown student council kid you meet with when the office doesn’t have smart kids like Buttigieg: Beto is wordy, imprecise and confusing. Without furniture to stand on, he just cannot pull it together. Beto should get off the stage. He totally lacks creativity. He is squandering his opportunity to even be a deputy secretary in the next Democratic administration. At this rate, Beto may not make it to New Hampshire.
6-9: A tie among a clutch of tiresome white guys who needed to break through and leave an impression, but failed to do even that. With the top-tier candidates making their mark, this became almost a contest to be the most like a Republican. Former congressman John Delaney (Md.) is a scratchy bald guy. The guy with hair is Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio. Ryan is among the reasonable white guys but has absolutely nothing to say and does not say it very well. This is the wrong year for him to brag about his “tedious” career in Congress. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper looks like a mortician and sounds like a flustered bureaucrat. He defends the work done so far in Afghanistan, a unique position for a Democrat. The Tom Hanks-looking candidate with black hair is Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. Maybe Bullock wins among this group to be the most like a Republican, so he will never be the Democratic nominee for president. Bullock is also a rational white guy, but he is tepid. He has to speak in code. He is trying to move left without getting caught back home in Montana. It reduces him to a bunch of buzzwords and vague platitudes. Bullock is way too intellectually honest and stable for the Democratic Party.
10. Author Marianne Williamson: She spoke a lot of words, but she said nothing. She tried to be a more conventional and serious candidate, but she faltered. That said, her position about reparations was impressive and encouraging for Republicans who want to run against reparations. But there is nothing unique about her anymore. She was more interesting as a hippie space cadet than she is as a knockoff version of Hillary Clinton. Sad.
To be clear, most of what matters in a campaign takes place outside these debates. And while the debates provide a focal point for the commentariat in the media, they generally fail to build as much support in the early days of a campaign as organization and retail campaigning does. The debates are more interesting than they are relevant. That said, it is clear that Sanders and Warren are pulling away from the other contenders on the stage with them Tuesday night.