HOUSTON ― After two debates that did not feature the leading Democratic presidential candidates all on one stage, Thursday’s showdown finally felt like a real debate, with establishment front-runner Joe Biden sparring with the progressive challengers close at his heels in the polls, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), as well as other moderates in the race.
The 10 candidates ditched the introductory boilerplate and dived straight into their differences on health care and the economy, executing veiled shots at each other they’ve telegraphed for weeks. But the highly anticipated face-off between Biden, Warren, and Sanders, the three polling leaders in the race, never really came to a head beyond one exchange on health care.
“How are we going to pay for it?” Biden asked moments after the debate began, referring to the universal health care plan backed by both Sanders and Warren. “I want to hear that tonight. My distinguished friend, the senator on my left, has not indicated how she pays for it,” he said, referring to Warren.
“The senator says she’s for Bernie. Well, I’m for Barack,” the former vice president added, name-dropping former President Barack Obama.
Warren responded by saying “we all owe a huge debt to President Obama,” who remains overwhelmingly popular among the Democratic electorate, and explained that she planned to make the richest individuals pay for her plan. Sanders, who has made his “Medicare for All” plan the signature feature of his candidacy, also made sure not to miss a dig at Biden.
“Let us be clear, Joe, in the United States of America, we are spending twice as much per capita on health care as the Canadians or any other major country on earth,” Sanders said.
Biden’s campaign previewed his attacks in the days leading up to the debate as advisers repeatedly argued that Democrats should select a nominee able to offer “more than plans,” a reference to Warren’s most popular line on the campaign trail, “I have a plan for that.”
The highly anticipated face-off between Biden, Warren, and Sanders, the three polling leaders in the race, never really came to a head.
Warren, meanwhile, took swipes of her own ahead of the debate that were widely seen as focusing on Biden. On the campaign trail, Warren repeatedly touted how she is not “spending my time with high-dollar donors and with corporate lobbyists,” a reference to the former vice president’s fundraising events with well-heeled donors.
The tension between the two campaigns spilled out into the open on the eve of the debate after former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Biden surrogate, penned an op-ed in The Washington Post calling Warren a “hypocrite” and saying that she “didn’t have any trouble” taking his money until she swore off high-dollar fundraisers for her presidential bid this year.
Biden’s campaign told reporters on Thursday that he was not involved in the decision to publish the op-ed.
The expected fireworks between the two candidates fizzled on stage, however. Warren did not bring up the op-ed, and apart from her remarks on Medicare for All, she played it safe by focusing on her plans for the economy and taking on corruption in Washington. Biden ignored Warren’s former work in bankruptcy law and clients, continuing to make his case about “restoring the soul of America” amid the chaotic tenure of President Donald Trump.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, meanwhile, delivered one of the sharpest attacks against Biden when he insinuated that the onetime Delaware senator’s memory might be failing him.
“Are you forgetting what you just said two minutes ago?” Castro said during an exchange on health care, eliciting some gasps from the audience and reprimands from several other candidates on stage. The line appeared to evoke some critics’ concerns about Biden’s mental acuity.
“This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable,” lamented South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg afterward. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar agreed, chiming in with, “A house divided cannot stand.”
Biden campaign adviser Anita Dunn responded by telling reporters that Castro “clearly didn’t learn from the first two debates that taking personal cheap shots at Vice President Biden actually doesn’t work out that well.”
But New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker seemed to back up Castro in a later interview with CNN, stating that “there’s a lot of people concerned about Joe Biden’s ability to carry the ball all the way across the end line without fumbling.”
It was unclear, however, if the damage to Biden over the course of the night was severe enough to knock him from his front-runner perch.
Other lower-ranked candidates also had standout moments during the night.
Buttigieg got emotional in his closing remarks while talking about coming out as gay when the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy forced LGBTQ members of the military to keep quiet about their sexual orientation.
Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke won applause when he reiterated his support for a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons. O’Rourke vowed: “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
Klobuchar took a swing at Sanders over the specifics in his health care plan, saying, “While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill and ... it says that we will no longer have private insurance as we know it.”
And the audience loved California Sen. Kamala Harris’ opening remarks in which she spoke directly into the camera to address Trump and his policies. “Now, Mr. President, you can go back to watching Fox News,” she said.
This story has been updated with additional comments during and after the debate.