1 minute: The stage on the campus of Texas Southern University in Houston is revealed to be massive, electronic and blue, like a deep-sea Times Square. The people are also blue. Blue ties. Blue suits. Blue shirts. Democrats have been sad for the past three years, so this feels appropriate. Warren, center stage, stands out in a magenta jacket. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, keeping close to her moderate brand, has taken a small risk with a dark turquoise coat.
2 minutes: ABC’s four debate hosts introduce themselves by making clear that this is not CNN. There will be no 15-second gut punches or rejoinders like in the July debates. Candidates get 75 seconds to answer, 45 seconds to respond.
3 minutes: To prove the point, everyone gets extended time for an opening statement. Former housing secretary Julián Castro goes first, declaring that he can excite a “young, diverse coalition” like John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did. Klobuchar follows by saying she is neither loud nor made for TV. “We have a guy there that is literally running our country like a game show,” she says of President Trump. “I think we need something different.”
6 minutes: O’Rourke says the shooter who murdered 22 last month in his hometown of El Paso was “inspired to kill by our president.” Then he bemoans the political debate that followed: “The bitterness, the pettiness, the smallness of the moment, the incentives to attack one another and try to make differences without distinctions, mountains out of mole hills — we have to be bigger,” he says. This is the clearest rationale for his campaign that he has so far offered in a debate.
7 minutes: New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker follows with a bit of his stump speech, strung together with aphorisms. “Without vision, the people will perish,” he says. “At our best, we unify.” He is followed by businessman Andrew Yang, who immediately takes Klobuchar up on her game-show challenge. “I’m going to do something unprecedented tonight,” he says, like Howie Mandel about to open a briefcase. “My campaign will now give a freedom dividend of $1,000 a month for an entire year to 10 American families, someone watching this at home right now.” It’s a gimmick designed to promote the core idea of Yang’s candidacy — his plan for the government to pay Americans a universal basic income.
10 minutes: South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is stunned to momentary silence. He has no $12,000 voter prizes to offer. “It’s original, I’ll give you that,” he says, before launching a lyrical opening statement that is basically typical presidential campaign words, arranged better. “Imagine what would be possible right now with ideas that are bold enough to meet the challenges of our time, but big enough, as well, that they could unify the American people,” he says.
11 minutes: California Sen. Kamala D. Harris has planned a novel rhetorical device. She looks in the camera and tells Trump she knows he is watching. He is not, in fact, watching. At this moment, he is addressing Republican lawmakers in Baltimore. But that is beside the point. The former prosecutor wants to show she can, in the words of her advisers, “prosecute the case.” “Here’s what you don’t get,” she tells the man who can’t hear her. “What you don’t get is that the American people are so much better than this.”
13 minutes: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s voice sounds like gravel. When he speaks louder, it builds into a growl, then a roar. “We have got to recognize that this country is moving into an oligarchic form of society where a handful of billionaires control the economic and political life of this country,” he says. Sanders has almost no pretense. What you see — the wily hair, the red face, the ideological certainty — is exactly who he is.
14 minutes: The opening statements round out with Warren, the former Harvard professor, recounting her blue-collar roots, from an Oklahoma childhood to the part-time waitress job to single motherhood. “I know what’s broken. I know how to fix it,” she says. Biden uses his time to rebut all the claims by his rivals that he lacks bold ideas or a sense of urgency. “It’s no longer time to postpone,” he says. “We should get moving.”
17 minutes: The first question is about health care. Biden gets asked if Sanders and Warren are going too far with their plan to effectively replace private health insurance and the Obamacare exchanges with a government-run Medicare-for-all. He answers by attacking Warren, who has said she is with Sanders on this issue. “I know that the senator says she’s for Bernie,” he says. “Well, I’m for Barack.” Then he points out that neither Warren nor Sanders have explained how they will pay for their plans. He has come to rumble.
18 minutes: Warren is smiling. She defuses the Obama comparison by praising the former president’s health reforms and decides not to bite back. Instead she says under Medicare-for-all, the rich will pay more and the middle class will pay less.
19 minutes: ABC’s George Stephanopoulos decides to repeat a question that Warren has spent more than six months refusing to answer directly, even though experts have said the answer is yes. Will her health plan raise taxes on the middle class? She says again that in terms of overall costs, the wealthy will pay more and the middle class will pay less.
22 minutes: Biden, seeming gleeful in his new role on offense, is happy to say what Warren will not. “This is about candor, honesty, big ideas,” he says. “The middle-class person, someone making 60 grand with three kids, they’re going to end up paying $5,000 more.”
23 minutes: So it goes, back and forth. Sanders and Warren won’t admit to the new taxes, focusing instead on the profits taken by private insurers and the possibility of greater cost savings by avoiding them. Sanders points out that U.S. health costs are twice what Canadians pay. “This is America,” Biden snaps back. “Yes, but Americans don’t want to pay twice as much as other countries,” says Sanders.
25 minutes: Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Harris all chime in with different approaches to backing up Biden’s view that private insurance should remain an option. “While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill,” Klobuchar says. “I trust you to choose what makes the most sense for you. Not my way or the highway,” says Buttigieg. The name he has for his proposal — “Medicare-for-all who want it — just happens to be two syllables short of iambic pentameter. Harris says her plan is “about offering people choice, not taking that from them.”
31 minutes: Biden is still not done. He asks for 15 seconds to respond, forgetting that this is not CNN. He gets it, and attacks Sanders for the benefits some union workers would lose under Medicare-for-all. Sanders responds by asking for 1 minute, even though he should only get 45 seconds. He says people are going bankrupt in America just for getting sick with cancer. Biden retorts by saying that those with serious illness that brings them into poverty would be “automatically enrolled” in his public-option plan.
33 minutes: Then Castro takes it all to another level. His plan would basically mimic Sanders’s Medicare-for-all but still allow people to opt out and remain in private insurance. “The differences between what I support and what you support, Vice President Biden, is that you require them to opt in, and I would not require them to opt in,” he says.
35 minutes: Biden objects to this, since his plan does have an automatic enrollment for those near the poverty line who can’t afford private insurance. Minutes earlier, he had mentioned this, while also saying someone who loses a job could buy into the plan. “You are automatically enrolled,” he said, referring to the poorer voter.
36 minutes: Castro sees a chance to make his generational case, but to do it he conflates the two circumstances and appears to go after Biden’s age. “I can’t believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you’re saying they don’t have to buy in,” Castro says, without allowing Biden a chance to respond. “You’re forgetting that.” Biden seems to get what’s going on and mimes exasperation, then a smile.
37 minutes: “I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you’re not,” says Castro, sounding a bit like he has left the debate stage and joined the schoolyard. Biden responds immediately: “That’ll be a surprise to him.”
38 minutes: “This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington, scoring points against each other,” Buttigieg says accurately. Castro responds by showing he can lecture younger rivals as well. “Yeah, that’s called the Democratic primary election, Pete,” Castro says.
39 minutes: Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, breaks the tension by making one of his Asian jokes. “Now, I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors,” he says.
40 minutes: The health-care portion of the night ends, with a quick pivot to race. The candidates are each asked to prove their ability to handle racial division and injustice. O’Rourke gets applause for mentioning “August 20, 1619, when the first kidnapped African was brought to this country against his will and in bondage.” Castro lists off the names of black people who have been killed by police in recent years. Booker promises to make a new White House office to combat white supremacy. Buttigieg speaks about “transcending the framework” that “pits a single black mother of three against a displaced autoworker.”
46 minutes: Harris gets a tough question about why she didn’t accomplish more as a prosecutor in reforming the criminal justice system. She is ready for the question, rattles off her accomplishments, and then admits that there was much more to do when she became a U.S. senator. “As president of the United States, knowing the system from the inside, I will have the ability to be an effective leader and get this job complete,” she says.
49 minutes: Klobuchar, who has been criticized along similar lines for her record as a prosecutor, gets the same question and answers it much the same way.
51 minutes: Biden gets the criminal justice reform question and appears to stumble. “Nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime,” he says. He probably means for nonviolent drug offenses, or something like that. Or he is making big news about a new criminal justice reform idea embraced by moderates in the Democratic Party.
55 minutes: The candidates now debate gun policy. Several candidates praise O’Rourke for his emotional and forceful response to the El Paso shooting, but they do not agree with him on imposing mandatory gun buyback for assault weapons.
60 minutes: O’Rourke is grateful for the praise from the other candidates. And unapologetic about his new position on gun confiscation. “So many other people were shot by that AR-15 in Odessa and Midland, there weren’t enough ambulances to get to them in time,” he says. “. . . Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
70 minutes: Univision’s Jorge Ramos tries repeatedly to get Biden to back away from the deportation policy under the Obama presidency. Like Warren and Sanders, who would not admit to new taxes, Biden refuses to bite. “The president did the best thing that was able to be done at the time,” he says.
72 minutes: Castro once again attacks Biden. Just as before, Castro’s eagerness seems to work against him. “He wants to take credit for Obama’s work, but not have to answer to any questions,” Castro says. Then when the moderator asks Biden to respond, Castro keeps talking.
73 minutes: “I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good, bad and indifferent,” says Biden, once he finally gets a chance to speak.
74 minutes: Warren, Buttigieg, Yang and O’Rourke all get more immigration questions, and all of them denounce Trump and promise to do better for the country.
82 minutes: The first commercial break. Running for president, after all, is a marathon, not a sprint.
88 minutes: And we’re back. The topic now is Trump’s tariffs. The candidates are all hazy, promising to have similar aims of getting tough on China with less-harmful methods. But none of them say they would abandon tariffs completely. Some, like Castro, stick to abstract phrases like “ratchet down the trade war.” Others, like Warren, seem eager for a further escalation in defense of the American worker. “You want to come sell goods to American consumers? Then you got to raise your standards,” she says. “We can use trade to help build a stronger economy.”
96 minutes: Harris uses the trade question to uncork a manliness shot on Trump, returning to her prosecute the case theme. “Donald Trump in office on trade policy, you know, he reminds me of that guy in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ you know, when you pull back the curtain, it’s a really small dude,” she says. Then she laughs at her own joke.
97 minutes: Stephanopoulos, who is not a very big dude, doesn’t know what to do with this. “I’m not even going to take the bait, Senator Harris,” he says. “Oh, George, it wasn’t about you,” says Harris. That got awkward.
98 minutes: Sanders points out that Biden voted for NAFTA and other trade deals, which he opposed. Biden responds by hugging Warren’s position. “At the table has to be labor and at the table have to be environmentalists,” he says.
102 minutes: Time to talk about Afghan withdrawal. The candidate positions range from “pull out quickly” to “pull out while leaving a clear counterterrorism force to make sure al-Qaeda or other international terror groups do not start using the country as a staging base again.” But it is not entirely clear who would leave what size force or for how long. Warren seems more dovish than Biden.
111 minutes: The conversation ends when Sanders takes a chance to point out he opposed the Iraq invasion and Biden supported it. “You’re right,” Biden says, appearing to admit his mistake. This moment is quickly swept away when Yang gets a question about his preparations to be commander in chief, and he clearly struggles. “I’ve signed a pledge to end the forever wars,” he says in a rambling answer that includes a mention of “our own country of Puerto Rico.”
114 minutes: Sanders once again refuses to call Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro “a dictator,” despite a direct question. “A vicious tyrant,” Sanders says instead.
117 minutes: Booker, a vegan, is asked if others should follow his diet. “No,” Booker says. Then he translates his answers into Spanish. “No.”
118 minutes: This begins the climate-change portion of the evening. There is no real disagreement. Rather, the candidates compete to show concern. Then, Yang proposes that the government give everyone in America 100 “Democracy dollars,” which they can spend on political causes to reduce the relative influence of corporate donations. This is in addition to $12,000 in sweepstakes-like money he announced earlier in the night for 10 families.
126 minutes: Education is the topic. The candidates agree that Trump is bad. Public schools are good, and public-school teachers are better. The latter deserve a raise.
134 minutes: Biden is asked a question about his old views on school segregation, and he deftly avoids the topic, focusing instead on Maduro, public schools and other things parents can do to help their children learn. “Make sure you have the record player on at night,” he says. “Make sure that kids hear words.”
140 minutes: A final commercial break. Almost there. Debates are often the opposite of a good sporting event in the final quarter. You have to force yourself to keep watching.
146 minutes: We’re back with a softball question that doubles as an opportunity for closing statements. All the candidates are asked to speak about their own resilience. After a brief interruption from protesters shouting for unclear reasons, Biden speaks eloquently about the family tragedy he has endured, including the death of his daughter, first wife and adult son. “You know, Kierkegaard said, ‘Faith sees best in the dark,’ ” he says.
149 minutes: Warren returns to her stump speech. Sanders talks about his early campaign losses. Harris talks about the challenge of being the “first black woman” in many jobs. Booker talks about his early political races in Newark. Klobuchar talks about her alcoholic father and the illness of her daughter after birth. Buttigieg talks about coming out as gay. Yang talks about his business struggles. O’Rourke talks about his hometown. Castro talks about his immigrant family, and his decision to quit his law firm job because of a political conflict.
165 minutes: “The debate is over,” says Stephanopoulos. See you next month, with even more qualified candidates possibly spread over two nights. Remember, it’s a marathon. Sprints would be too easy.