- Democratic presidential candidates took the stage in Detroit for the latest round of primary debates Tuesday night.
- Some candidates received significant screen time, while others faded into the background.
- Top winners included Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as longshot candidates looking for breakout moments like former Rep. John Delaney.
- Losers failed to make inroads and capitalize on opportunities for breakout moments, such as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
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Democratic presidential candidates took the stage in the latest round of primary debates Tuesday night, where struggling campaigns attempted to capitalize on potential breakout moments, while others tried to hold on to top tier status in a massively competitive field.
There are difficult components to producing a successful and memorable debate performance, which can be key to cultivating support and boosting donations – both of which are part of the requirements to continue appearing on the debate stage in the coming months.
Looking back at the first round of debates, several candidates benefitted from breakout performances, including Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who climbed in the polls and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, whose campaign donations exploded in the following days after his debate.
Tuesday’s debate featured a handful of clear winners and losers.
Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts are clear rivals. They are two of the most liberal candidates in the Democratic field, their home states border one another, and they are neck and neck in most major national and early voting state polls.
But the far-left Democrats managed to avoid what could have been a massive fight between the two of them. Multiple questions from CNN moderators, including one asking whether Sanders was too far to the left to defeat President Donald Trump, failed to spark a fight with Warren.
“They’re running on telling half the country that your health insurance is illegal,” said former Maryland Rep. John Delaney while contrasting his healthcare plans with Sanders’ and Warrens’, which would eliminate private health insurance.
Warren snapped back at Delaney, characterizing his criticisms of “Medicare for All” as parroting Republican talking points.
“So let’s be clear about this. We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take away healthcare from anyone,” she said. “That’s what the Republicans are trying to do. And we should stop using Republican talking points.”
But Delaney received a surprisingly large amount of screen time Tuesday night, with moderators continuously going to him for contrasting takes on key issues. As a candidate looking to carve out his own unique lane as the more centrist choice in the Democratic field, that could be a major boon to his campaign.
A lot of candidates struggled to distinguish themselves from the rest of the Democrats on stage. Not capitalizing on key moments can kill any momentum a campaign might have, which in a field of 25 candidates, can ultimately become a political death sentence.
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg did not produce a breakout moment, which can be hard to begin with while sharing a stage with nine other candidates.
While discussing whether certain candidates are too far to the left and what labels like “socialist” will do to the party, Buttigieg said, “It’s time to stop worrying what the Republicans will say.”
But Buttigieg did not articulately distinguish between what is “socialist” and what is not, especially compared to other candidates like Delaney and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. He missed the mark on key moments to draw widespread applause or create laughs in the crowd, which viewers will remember.
Another loser of the debate was the mainstream Democratic talking point that the party has not veered extremely to the left in recent years. Candidates spent a bulk of the debate arguing about hot button issues like eliminating private health insurance and decriminalizing border crossings.
“The ones who can’t possibly win the nomination are warning the ones who CAN win that their crazy policies are going to doom them,” Trump reelection campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh wrote on Twitter.
Whether that theme carries on into the next debate and dominates the remaining months of the Democratic presidential primary could be very dangerous for Democrats, who are far outside the US mainstream on certain issues, according to recent national polling.
The rest of the field split on how they handled the primetime stage. Candidates like former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and author Marianne Williamson managed to hit their marks and deliver snappy lines about their unique policy positions.
Which candidates truly shined will be evidenced when the donations either pour in or completely evaporate. With increasingly strict criteria to stay in the debates, that could mean the end of a lot of presidential ambitions.