I know, I know, you probably want an assessment of who won and who lost. All right, but only with the caveat that I didn’t see or hear anything game-changing.
Especially on the questions involving foreign policy, Biden sounded more like Statesman Joe than Grandpa Joe. All the candidates slammed Trump for pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, but only Biden was able to claim that he helped to negotiate it. On the subject of North Korea, only Biden was able to boast that he had been called a “rabid dog” by dictator Kim Jong Un. He’s the national front-runner, so a steady performance for him is a victory.
Warren’s poll numbers have softened of late, but she was sharp as a tack Tuesday night. The run-up to the debate had featured a spat between her and Sanders over whether, at a private 2018 dinner between the two, Sanders opined that he did not believe a woman could win the 2020 election. Warren said he did; Sanders says he didn’t.
When Sanders repeated his denial onstage, Warren refused to bite. “I disagree,” she said, but “Bernie is my friend, and I’m not here to try to fight with Bernie.”
Warren then came out with perhaps the best line of the night. “Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections,” she said. “The only people on this stage who have won every election that they’ve been in are the women, Amy and me.” The Massachusetts senator drew laughs and applause. Overall, she seemed more like the Elizabeth Warren who seemed unstoppable last summer.
Sanders was also in good form. We know pretty much what he’s going to say at these debates, since he’s been saying it for 30 years. He did sound a bit defensive at times, but he accomplished something important for a 78-year-old presidential candidate who recently suffered a heart attack: He seemed vigorous, energetic and indefatigable.
Buttigieg, like Warren, was in search of lost mojo. He seemed to find at least some of it, largely thanks to the fact that so much of the debate was fought on the policy-wonk terrain where he is most comfortable. He seemed a bit less so, however, when pressed to explain his lack of support from African American voters. Saying he had been endorsed by “a member of the Congressional Black Caucus” sounded . . . thin.
Klobuchar, by my unofficial scorekeeping, was the candidate who most often exceeded her allotted time, generally trying to squeeze in three or four answers per question. Iowa is basically her only shot, and she’s taking it. She lost no opportunity to emphasize her roots in next-door Minnesota or to sing the virtues of salt-of-the-earth Iowans. “The Midwest is not flyover country for me; I live here,” she said.
Klobuchar lags in the polls. If she doesn’t somehow defy the odds and pull off an upset, she will almost surely have to drop out of the race. For better or worse, it showed.
Steyer is actually getting better as a debate performer. A recent poll showed him — with considerable help from a huge ad buy — in second place in South Carolina, so who knows? He doesn’t attack his rivals. He stares either piercingly or disconcertingly into the camera. And he won’t have to drop out until he gets tired of spending his money, of which he has plenty.
The Democratic Party’s dream is that at the end of the convention, as the balloons fall from the rafters, all umpty-seven candidates who started the race can come onstage and join hands in unity against Trump. Tuesday’s debate didn’t change the race, but it did give Democratic officials reason to hope that the happy ending they seek for might actually happen. These were not bitter rivals. They actually seemed to like each other.