The top six candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination gathered on a debate stage Wednesday night, just days before the critical Nevada caucuses.
My winners and losers from the night that was are below.
* Elizabeth Warren: Holy moly – what a debate for the Massachusetts senator. From the jump, Warren seemed to understand that she desperately needed a spark in the race. And she came out fighting – mostly against Bloomberg. “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against,” Warren said moments into the debate. “A billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians, and no I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.” But that wasn’t even the most savage hit Warren scored on Bloomberg! That came later, when she absolutely destroyed his equivocation on whether he would release women who had worked for his company from non-disclosure agreements they had signed. It was a takedown – aided by Bloomberg’s inability to mitigate the damage – that you rarely see at this level of politics. If debates matter, Warren should overperform her current polls in Nevada.
* Bernie Sanders: The ganging-up on Bloomberg was just fine for the Sanders, who, in case you forgot, is the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination. With all of the attention – and opposition research – being used to tear Bloomberg apart, the Vermont democratic socialist largely got a pass. On his major weakness at the moment – his walking back of a previous pledge to release his full medical records – Sanders took a few hits, but benefited from Pete Buttigieg’s decision not to push the issue of his personal health but rather to pivot to Sanders’ health care plan. Sanders, as he usually does in debates, played his greatest hits (millionaires and billionaires, “Medicare for All,” etc.) that have put him atop the Democratic field.
* Pete Buttigieg/Joe Biden: Warren giving Bloomberg the emperor-has-no-clothes treatment will slow the former New York City mayor’s attempt to seize control of the pragmatic centrist lane. That’s good news for both Buttigieg and Biden, who want/need to be that candidate. Biden, a hugely mediocre debater, turned in one of his more solid performances on Wednesday night but that was due, in no small part, to the fact that everyone else on the stage ignored him. Buttigieg is, without question, the most naturally gifted debater in the Democratic field, meaning he is simply not going to turn in a clunker. He was steady if not spectacular in this debate. And he spent lots of time going at Sanders, a clear effort to send a signal to voters that he is the most credible alternative to the Vermont senator.
* Contested convention: Asked directly whether they believed that the candidate with the most delegates at the end of the process should be the party’s nominee even if that person didn’t win a majority of delegates during the primary votes, everyone but Sanders said they disagreed with that idea. (Sanders is the candidate most likely to wind up with the most delegates – and still short of a majority). Brokered convention, here we come! (Maybe?)
* Michael Bloomberg: The first hour of the debate was an absolute and total disaster for the former mayor. He looked lost at times – and those were the best times for him! Warren dunked on him repeatedly. Sanders slammed him. Biden bashed him. It was like watching a pro wrestling match where everyone decided to gang up on a single wrestler in the ring – and that wrestler was totally and completely caught off-guard. Bloomberg is still very, very rich – and will continue to spend his money on the race. So he’s not going away. But it’s hard to see how the momentum Bloomberg had built through his heavy ad spending wasn’t slowed considerably by a performance that slid waaaaay under what was a very low bar of expectations.
* Amy Klobuchar: The Minnesota senator has been one of the best debaters in the race to date. Not on Wednesday night. Klobuchar’s authenticity has been at the center of her rise of late but it all seemed too hokey and too forced this time around. Klobuchar had to know she was going to get a question about why she couldn’t remember the name of the Mexican President, but she still had to look down at her notes to get the name right! And her follow-up bit of trivia about the number of people in the Israeli parliament fell totally flat too. Just not her night.
* Jon Ralston: Full disclosure – the editor of the Nevada Independent is a friend. But he is also the preeminent journalist in Nevada, and has been for decades. Given all of that, he needed a larger role as a moderator in this debate. Why have him on stage if he is largely sidelined and not given the chance to ask the candidates about issues that he knows Nevada voters actually care about?