With a dozen candidates, the stage for the Democratic Party's fourth presidential primary debate in Westerville, Ohio, was vast, and at more than three hours long, the talking seemingly endless. But when the dust cleared, a somewhat new dynamic in the race to take on Republican President Donald Trump for the White House next year became apparent.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is currently the party's frontrunner — at least in her opponents' eyes. Thus, a good portion of the debate revolved around her policy proposals and her opponents' sometimes pointed opposition to them.
That gave her the most speaking time — more than 22 minutes, according to a New York Times analysis. That's easily more than the 17 minutes grabbed by former Vice President Joe Biden, the race's traditional front runner. And almost double the roughly 13 minutes of speaking time snagged by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the candidate closest to Warren ideologically. Like Biden, Sanders not long ago was polling higher than Warren.
But more recent polls have Warren and Biden neck and neck, at least, and some have her ahead — a fact not lost on Warren's opponents. With the added attention came plenty of attacks from more than half of the other candidates onstage. Warren was able to push back on some of those critiques, but she had a harder time dealing with others.
The most solid hits came against Warren's support of Medicare for All — a clear dividing line between left-leaning candidates Warren and Sanders and the rest of the party. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg hammered on the subject, demanding that Warren answer whether her plan would raise taxes for middle class families. Warren's answer: pledging never to sign legislation that raised overall health care costs for Americans. Buttigieg, whose campaign recently launched an ad attacking Medicare for All, shot back that he asked "a yes or no question that didn't get a yes or no answer."
That exchange — and others during Buttigieg's roughly 13 minutes of speaking time — gave him opportunities to describe his more moderate policy proposals and showed that the 37-year-old mayor, currently polling fourth in the contest, likely isn't going away any time soon.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar piled on, aiming specifically at Warren, accusing her of "making Republican talking points" with her support for the plan that Warren says would provide universal health care for Americans. Klobuchar wanted to know "where we're going to send the invoice" for the multi-trillion-dollar proposal. Warren has floated raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy to pay for Medicare for All, but the plan has been uncharacteristically murky for the usually detail-oriented policy wonk.
"At least Bernie’s being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up," Klobuchar said.
Some of the punches landed. At other times, the attacks felt transparently about candidates like Klobuchar, who hasn't qualified for the next debate in November, struggling to stay relevant as the party makes its criteria for future debate appearances tougher.
"Your idea is not the only idea," Klobuchar chided Warren, inadvertently underscoring the fact that the debate was focused on the new frontrunner.
Other punches landed low, as when Biden, after claiming he was the only candidate to accomplish "anything really big," jabbed his hand at Warren and extolled his role in getting the votes for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Warren proposed and established in the face of deep opposition. Warren pointedly credited then-President Barack Obama for his help.
Beyond attacks from other candidates, Warren at least once apparently made an unforced error when she suggested the United States withdraw from the Middle East. That was a misstatement, her campaign later clarified — she meant withdrawing combat troops only from the region, not all U.S. presence.
Elsewhere on the stage, Warren's top rivals held steady, leaving no path for the informal frontrunner to really step into a dominating lead in the race. Sanders, recovering from surgery after a heart attack this month, showed few signs that the health incident was slowing him down, engaging in his usual high-energy, wise-cracking performance and refusing to equivocate when it came to his unabashedly left policies.
Sanders will also be buoyed among the left wing of the party's base — a group he and Warren are competing for — with the announcement that popular, left-leaning U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are endorsing the Vermont senator.
Biden turned in a middling performance with few gaffes but also few home runs. He managed to skate thin ice on the subject of his son, Hunter Biden, who took a position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company paying $50,000 a month while his father was vice president and dealing with matters involving Ukraine. That job is the basis of accusations Trump has made that Biden engaged in corrupt actions during his time as vice president. No evidence has surfaced that those accusations are true, and Democrats have launched an impeachment inquiry after Trump asked Ukraine and China to investigate his political rival.
Still, Hunter Biden's Ukrainian job calls up uncomfortable questions about power and influence for the former vice president — questions that, fortunately for Biden, came up rarely during the debate. But Biden deferring three times to a statement his son made in which he admitted taking the job may have been a bad choice but denied wrongdoing isn't an answer — something he will likely need to provide as the race goes on.
Each of the lesser-known candidates in the debate — U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, businessman Andrew Yang, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and businessman Tom Steyer — had good moments and a few flubs. But, low in the polls and in speaking time last night, none had the breakout moments likely required to move the needle on their campaigns. As frontrunners Warren, Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg battled it out — often over policies Warren has proposed — the other candidates seemed mostly to recede into the background.