With the first presidential primary contests less than three months away but impeachment dominating the news, 10 Democratic candidates produced a subdued debate Wednesday night that featured few direct contrasts or new information, and little that seemed likely to change the shape of the race.
Standing on stage in Atlanta, the top four candidates largely avoided clashes, opting to stick to the themes and plans that have put each of them in their current positions.
The relatively mild event was in keeping with a period when the presidential campaign has been pushed to the background by the explosive developments in the Trump impeachment inquiry, which consumed the political world with new testimony from U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland in the hours before the event. It perhaps foreshadowed the weeks to come, when the impeachment fight is likely to loom even larger.
In fact, with new testimony scheduled Thursday morning, the debate that ended at about 11:20 p.m. could have a shelf life of just hours. The candidates seemed to realize it was not a night to go big.
Instead, they trod familiar ground. Former Vice President Joe Biden talked about unifying the country and argued that he can win in places other Democrats can’t. Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders reminded viewers that he “wrote the damn bill” for Medicare for All. And Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren pressed her wealth tax — along with, briefly, her recently modified position on how she would expand Medicare to all Americans.
Meanwhile, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend., Ind., cast himself as the Trump opposite who could nevertheless win over Trump voters. Despite his recent rise in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, his rivals did not come after him.
Even when the moderators seemingly teed up California Sen. Kamala Harris to criticize Buttigieg over his record on race relations in his city, one of his main vulnerabilities, the senator quickly pivoted away and spoke to broader themes rather than taking a chance to hit one of the race’s top candidates.
Some of the six other Democrats on stage tried some new wrinkles, but few seemed likely to produce a drastic political shift.
The debate, held at Tyler Perry Studios, featured candidates who met the Democratic National Committee’s fundraising and polling criteria, and questions from a panel of journalists from NBC, MSNBC, and the Washington Post.
It came less than three months before Democrats hold their first nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, and as party insiders increasingly fret that their top contenders all carry significant flaws.
While Biden has shown the most strength against Trump in public polls, particularly in swing states, he lags his top rivals in fundraising, and some Democrats worry about his at-times shaky public performances. Warren and Sanders, meanwhile, have waged energetic campaigns, but continue to face questions about whether their liberal politics can win moderate states vital an Electoral College victory.
Buttigieg has emerged as another option, but is 37 and would be making a huge leap from mayor of a small city to the White House.
One of the more significant shifts in recent weeks has come from Warren, who, after months of saying she backed Medicare for All and arguing that Democrats need to boldly fight for big ideas, took a step back by saying she would wait three years to begin instituting that plan.
Instead, she has said she would take smaller initial steps that would make the benefits clear, in many ways echoing the more moderate candidates she had criticized for lacking gumption.
But if they, or Sanders, wanted to challenge her on it, none did so. After several debates that featured sharp clashes — and amid signs that Trump remains strong in swing states — it was almost as if the group had agreed to ease off hitting one another, at least for a night.
Buttigieg entered the night riding momentum in Iowa, where he surged into first place in a recent poll. Facing the growing scrutiny that comes with that position, he argued that he is both the opposite of Trump and able to appeal to the same voters.
“I am literally the least wealthy person on this stage,” Buttigieg said, adding that he doesn’t golf.
He cast himself as a pragmatic Midwesterner, implying that he can win over voters who lifted Trump to victory in critical swing states such as Pennsylvania. “Where we live, the infighting on Capitol Hill is what looks small,” he said.
It was an approach that contrasted himself with the senators and former vice president at the top of the pack — with Warren and Sanders to the left, and Buttigieg trying to claim some of the terrain Biden has staked out.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who has struggled to build momentum and warned in his closing statement that he is in danger of missing the qualification requirements for the next debate, took a new approach: arguing that Democrats need to worry less about raising taxes and more about increasing economic opportunity.
Once again citing his years living in a poor, mostly minority community in Newark, he argued that his neighbors want not just an increased minimum wage, but support for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
“Dear God, we’re going to have pathways to prosperity for more Americans,” Booker said.
Having once been criticized by liberals for being too close to Wall Street, Booker hasn’t made this argument a major piece of his campaign. But he needs traction, and made a clear play for the more centrist lane and a business-friendly approach. It’s a risk in a race in which many voters have gravitated to Warren and Sanders.
Another candidate already in the center lane and hoping for a late look from voters, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, made the case that women face a tougher road to the presidency than men. She had been asked to defend recent comments that if any of the women in the race had as little experience as Buttigieg does, they’d never be where he is.
“Women are held to a higher standard, otherwise we could play a game called name your favorite woman president, which we can’t do,” she said to applause. “Every woman at home knows exactly what I mean.”
It was an idea many Democrats probably agree with, and a reminder that four years after Hillary Clinton became the first woman nominated for president by a major party, 75% of the top four polling candidates are men.
Later, Klobuchar made a more explicit contrast with Buttigieg. She noted that she, not he, has won statewide races in a competitive state. “I actually have the experience,” she said.
The impeachment hearings dominated a long period of the debate.
Half of the 10 candidates could be sidelined by an impeachment trial, which would require senators to sit on the Senate floor as jurors.
Biden tried to draw a line between himself and Trump by saying he would not weigh in on whether the president should be prosecuted for potential crimes once he leaves office.