Here are our ‘awards’ for Thursday’s three-hour bonanza.
Democratic primary voters finally got to see Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren on the same stage. But the fireworks many expected between the former vice president and the Massachusetts senator never materialized.
With the field whittled down to a still-less-than-manageable 10 candidates on one stage, ABC News billed the debate as a heavyweight clash.
After a lengthy but civil back-and-forth between Warren and Bernie Sanders in the Medicare for All corner, and Biden and most of the other candidates in the more-incremental corner — the debate moved on to other issues. And with the change of subject came a near-total dissipation of the long-awaited tension between Biden and Warren.
Julián Castro, desperate for a campaign-changing moment, took it to Biden — but the former vice president didn’t take the bait. Warren displayed her usual command of the issues and ease with the format — and mostly went unchallenged by her competitors.
Three-hour debates don’t always have clear winners and losers. If anything changed Thursday night, it may prove to be the reemergence of Beto O’Rourke.
Here are some superlatives from the third Democratic debate (one night only!):
Most Improved Debater: Beto O’Rourke
The former Texas congressman is weeks into his second campaign reboot, but this one may have staying power. Already before the debate, there were signs O’Rourke — who has refocused his campaign on taking on President Donald Trump and gun control — on a slight upswing. A new CNN/SSRS poll out Tuesday showed O’Rourke at 5 percent among Democrats nationally — the first time he reached that threshold in a debate-qualifying poll since late May.
While he was sheepish in the two previous debates about injecting himself into each issue, O’Rourke wouldn’t let himself get lost on the stage on Thursday night.
O’Rourke is taking some significant long-term risks — campaigning on mandatory buybacks for assault weapons, for instance. But he’s newly relevant in the race for the Democratic nomination after plummeting in the polls over the summer.
Most Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde: Joe Biden
The good Biden showed up for the first 30 minutes of the debate. He pointedly defended his health care plan and drew meaningful contrasts with Warren. “I know the senator says she’s for Bernie,” he said. “Well, I’m for Barack.”
While he jabbed at Warren (and Sanders), he mostly shrugged off attacks from the low-polling Castro, who appeared to obfuscate on Biden’s health care plan.
But as the debate wore on, Biden was uneven. He gave a rambling answer about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said all non-violent criminals shouldn’t go to jail. He talked about record players.
His word salads and grandpa moments have, over the first two debates, been baked into voters’ perceptions of Biden — and his stronger moments Thursday night might overshadow those rough patches. But as voting nears and the stakes rise, will voters take a second look at whether Biden is up to the job of taking on Trump?