The fourth Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night confirmed what has been evident in the polls for some time: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has overtaken former Vice President Joe Biden as the front-runner in the race for the party’s nomination.
The other candidates on stage in Westerville, Ohio, treated the senator from Massachusetts as the new favorite, hammering her repeatedly over her evasiveness when confronted with questions about her health care and wealth inequality plans.
Biden, in contrast to the previous debates, often seemed like more of an after-thought. The former vice president still got in his hits against President Donald Trump, but his rivals mostly ignored him.
Here are some key takeaways from the debate.
Welcome to life as a front-runner, Elizabeth Warren.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar got that bandwagon going early when they criticized Warren for not giving a straight answer to a question about whether middle-class taxes would go up under “Medicare for All,” a government-sponsored health care proposal she has backed.
“Your signature is to have a plan for everything, except this,” Buttigieg said. “No plan has been laid out to explain how a multitrillion-dollar hole in this Medicare for All plan that Sen. Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in.”
Klobuchar quickly piled on: “I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but ... the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.”
Warren responded by repeating her usual answer when challenged on this point, focusing on the bottom-line effect the plan would have on middle-class families and pledging she wouldn’t support a proposal that raised overall costs for them.
Republicans have also attacked Warren over not being willing to address the question, which she has dismissed as “Republican framing.”
Klobuchar and O’Rourke also went after Warren over her proposal to levy a 2% wealth tax on the super-rich.
“I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth; nobody on this stage wants to protect billionaires,” Klobuchar said.
In a nod to Tom Steyer, the wealthy hedge fund manager who just recently entered the presidential race and was participating in his first debate, Klobuchar wryly added, “Not even the billionaire wants to protect the billionaires.”
O’Rourke joined in by accusing Warren of being “more focused on being punitive or pitting one part of the country against the other instead of lifting people up.”
Yang called out Warren for not addressing the threat automation poses to U.S. workers. That prompted several other candidates to address his signature universal basic income proposal ― perhaps the biggest coup for his campaign so far.
Biden meandered in talking about the Ukraine flap.
Biden didn’t directly answer if it was wrong that during his tenure as vice president, his son Hunter served as a board member for the Ukrainian company Burisma Holdings ― which spurred Trump’s controversial phone call to Ukraine’s president, which in turn could lead to Trump’s impeachment.
“I never discussed a single thing with my son about anything to do with Ukraine. ... We always kept everything separate,” Biden said about his son’s work overseas. “There would be no potential conflict. My son made a judgment. I’m proud of the judgment he made ... the fact of the matter is this is about Trump’s corruption.”
Hunter Biden acknowledged in an interview with ABC airing Tuesday that it was “poor judgment” on his part to join the venture, and conceded it was likely that his last name helped him professionally.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker actually gave a more succinct answer in defense of Biden, noting the hypocrisy of Trump and Republicans seeking to attempt to make hay of the matter, given the financial conflicts of interest that cloud the Trump administration.
“We are literally using Donald Trump’s lies, and the second issue we cover on this stage is elevating a lie and attacking a statesman,” Booker said, referring to Joe Biden.
Buttigieg, Klobuchar made a play for the middle lane.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar may have delivered their best debate performances yet.
Buttigieg, in particular, seemed to put more sustained effort into positioning himself as an alternative for centrists to Biden. He played up his small-town roots by recalling driving past closed factories while growing up in the post-industrial Midwest. The 37-year-old also repeatedly expressed his aversion to Washington elites, calling out “senators” and “congressmen” who have not gotten many things done during his “entire adult life.”
During a conversation on foreign policy and Trump’s recent decision to withdraw troops in Syria, Buttigieg drew applause after he called for the U.S. to stand by its allies.
“The slaughter going on in Syria is not a consequence of American presence, it a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values,” he said.
Buttigieg made another nod to more moderate voters when he called out O’Rourke for not giving more details on how the Texan’s proposed mandatory buyback program for assault weapons and a voluntary buyback program for handguns would work.
“I don’t need lessons from you on courage ― political or personal,” Buttigieg, a military veteran, told O’Rourke in one sharp exchange.
Bernie Sanders bounced back.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t look or sound like a guy who had a heart attack two weeks ago. He was as animated as ever, landing sharp blows against Trump and other Democrats on stage.
“I’m healthy, I’m feeling great,” the 78-year-old said when asked about his health and age.
After Booker jokingly interjected that Sanders supports medical marijuana, Sanders quipped, “I’m not on it tonight.” The line elicited laughter and applause from the audience.
But Sanders’ best moment may have been a fast-ball at Biden after the former vice president asserted that he knew how to “get stuff done,” and that he didn’t simply offer plans about how to do so.
“You know what else you got done? You got the disastrous war in Iraq done. You got a bankruptcy bill that’s hurting middle-class Americans all over the country,” Sanders retorted, referring to positions Biden took as a senator from Delaware.
There were some missed opportunities.
Steyer, whose focus is on combating climate change, started strong in the debate’s opening act, saying that “every candidate here is more decent, more coherent and more patriotic than the criminal in the White House.”
That may have been his only good line of the night, however, as the debate hummed along and he barely made his presence felt.
California Sen. Kamala Harris also needed a breakout moment ― similar to the one she enjoyed in the first debate in June ― to reverse her struggling poll numbers. She won applause and good marks from women’s rights groups when she noted that none of the previous encounters had featured any direct questions about reproductive rights, calling the omission “outrageous.”
Ultimately, this debate did feature such a query. But Harris, meanwhile, had nothing that would qualify as a standout remark or exchange.
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