In the final question of Thursday’s debate, the candidates were asked to describe a professional setback, how they recovered and what they learned. Some took liberties with the question, instead choosing to recount a more personal hardship.
Here are their answers.
Joe Biden highlighted personal loss, recalling how his wife and daughter died in a car accident in 1972, six weeks after he was elected to the Senate. “I lost my faith for a while,” Biden said. He also mentioned the death of his son, Beau, to brain cancer in 2015. He said he recovered by “finding purpose” and devoting himself to public policy.
Elizabeth Warren described the difficulties she faced as an expectant mother in the workplace. She said she was dismissed by the principal at the public school where she was teaching. “Here’s resilience,” she said. “I said, ‘I’ll go to law school.'”
Bernie Sanders chose two difficulties, the first growing up working poor as the son of an immigrant and the second struggling to break into politics. After several unsuccessful bids for office, he became mayor of Burlington, Vt., he said, “with a 10-vote margin.”
Kamala Harris also highlighted political courage, saying she faced skepticism in each political bid she made. “I was told each time, ‘it can’t be done,'” she said. She ultimately broke racial barriers, she said, drawing on lessons from her mother about perseverance.
Pete Buttigieg recounted the difficulty he faced coming out as gay while he was serving as the mayor of South Bend, Ind., which he described as a “socially conservative community.” He feared the move would be “the ultimate career-ending professional setback.” The lesson, he said, was about knowing “what’s worth more to you than winning.”
Andrew Yang described hurdles he faced in trying to start a business after he gave up practicing law. He ultimately became a successful entrepreneur, but not before losing scores of investors and a great deal of money. “My parents still told people I was a lawyer,” he quipped.
Cory Booker cited his unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Newark, in 2002, when he “took on the political machine,” as he put it. “And boy, did they fight back.” He ran again four years later and won.
Beto O’Rourke described the experience of watching his hometown of El Paso become the location of a mass shooting that left 22 people dead in August. O’Rourke, who has made gun control a focal point of his campaign, vowed, “We were not defeated by that, nor were we defined by that.”
Amy Klobuchar highlighted personal hardship, first her father’s alcoholism and his difficult decision to seek treatment and then her newborn’s illness that motivated her to advocate for a measure in Minnesota guaranteeing new mothers and their babies 48-hour stays in the hospital.
Julián Castro described returning home to San Antonio after law school and facing an ethical dilemma. He was simultaneously working as a lawyer and serving on the San Antonio city council. When his law firm pressed him to vote for a land deal that he opposed because of insufficient environmental protections, he quit the firm, he said, siding with “the people I was there to represent.”