WASHINGTON – The first votes will be cast in the 2020 Democratic primary in less than 3 months, and the 10 candidates on the debate stage Wednesday night were all looking for a breakout moment.
While the field has grown and shrunk repeatedly in the past few weeks, with candidates dropping out and jump in, the candidates on stage in Atlanta have all been in this race for months.
Each candidate had something to prove. Here’s an early take on how they did:
The Minnesota Senator was ready Wednesday night.
She got laughs and cheers for her answer when asked to follow up about her recent comments that a female candidate with Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s experience probably would not have made it to the debate stage.
After clarifying that she believes Buttigieg is indeed qualified to be at the debate, she doubled down on her belief that women are held to a different standard.
“Otherwise we could play a game called ‘Name Your Favorite Woman President,’ which we can’t do because it has all been men,” she quipped, adding that female candidates “have to work harder, and that’s a fact.”
But if voters worry that a woman can’t beat Trump, she concluded, “Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.” It landed with the audience.
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Democratic debate: Top-tier candidates look to break away from pack on Atlanta stage
Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg has rocketed to lead some polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and came into Wednesday night’s event with a target on his back.
But he left the debate stage mostly unscathed by other candidates; notably, none of the other top-tier candidates went on the offensive against him.
When Sen. Kamala Harris was asked about Buttigieg’s campaign’s use of a stock image of a Kenyan woman on a campaign site, she simply said she believed he had apologized and moved on to talk about larger issues.
When rebutting criticism that he has only dealt with small issues as a Mayor he stated that “frankly where we live, the infighting on Capitol Hill is what looks small.”
In response to critiques of his experience from Klobuchar and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Buttigieg said, “There’s more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?”
Buttigieg certainly has an uphill climb in several states, and a long way to go in earning support from black voters, but the widespread attacks on him that were expected Wednesday never really came to fruition.
The former Housing and Urban Development Secretary was a notable absence from the stage, having participated in each previous debate.
Castro is the only candidate still in the race who was on the debate stage in October, but not Wednesday. Castro also has not hit either the donor threshold or poll threshold needed to appear in the December debate, though he still has time.
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In the past month, Castro’s campaign had to to lay off staff in two early primary states, New Hampshire and South Carolina, to focus instead on Iowa and New Hampshire. The news came after the campaign asked supporters to help him raise $800,000 in 10 days to stay in the race.
With fewer than 80 days until the first votes are counted in Iowa, Castro is trailing many of his Democratic rivals in both national and early-state polls. The window for his campaign to make a splash is closing and missing out on the debate stage means fewer voters will get a chance to hear his message.
Castro said Tuesday night that while he wasn’t on the debate stage, he’s “shaped a lot of the debate already.” His campaign also noted that his name was trending on Twitter, even without being on stage.
Immigration and gun violence
Issues related to immigration and gun violence were largely ignored during Wednesday’s debate.
The issues have been winners in previous debates, where there were substantive exchanges about undocumented immigrants and issues at the southern border, and passionate discussions following a string of mass shootings.
Sanders mentioned immigration in his closing statement, saying, “I am the son of an immigrant. I will stand with the some 11 million undocumented immigrants of this country. I will lead an administration that will look like America, will end the divisiveness of Trump, and will end hate in America.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren was asked at one point if she would keep any parts of the border wall up if the Trump Administration builds new sections.
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“A great nation does not separate children from their families. We need to live our values at the border every single day,” she said passionately. But in her closing statement, she pointed out there hadn’t been any talk about gun violence and little talk about immigration.
The lack of substantive conversation around immigration and gun violence come during the first debate where Castro, the only Latino candidate and a candidate who has shaped much of the discussion on immigration, wasn’t on the stage. Also missing from the stage was former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who has been an outspoken advocate of gun control but who recently ended his presidential bid.
In early August, O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso was the site of a mass shooting where 22 people were killed. After the shooting he took time away from the campaign trail. When he returned, he advocated a mandatory buyback program in which gun owners would be required to sell certain weapons back to the government.
“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said during the September debate, which came weeks after the El Paso shooting.
A special at tip to the moderators
For just the third time in U.S. history and the first time in this election cycle, Wednesday’s debate was moderated by an all-female panel.
The moderators were MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Rachel Maddow, NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker, and Washington Post reporter Ashley Parker.
The panel asked questions about abortion, the #MeToo movement, paid family leave and childcare, white supremacy, and housing, several of which had been largely ignored at previous debates.
The moderators also got love from fellow journalists and non-journalists alike on social media.
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