The October Democratic debate, which aired Tuesday night on CNN, was filled with tense exchanges, notable answers, and a newfound sense of urgency among candidates needing to break out from a stagnant polling streak. Many viewers were specifically watching to see how former vice president Joe Biden would perform given his lackluster appearance in September and the new dynamic of the race with Sen. Elizabeth Warren knocking him from the top position according to most polls.
Related: Watch Full Debate Video
The short summary is that Biden didn’t manage to cut it any better than he did in September, with answers that meandered around questions and often served as deflections to turn issues back toward President Trump. If primary voters are basing their votes on debate performances alone, then Biden’s is a record stuck on repeat and voters may have already baked that in the cake.
Here’s a look at some of the best and worst parts from each candidate on stage.
Biden had some high expectations to meet, almost in a way that they were unmatchable since he hasn’t shown an ability to sharpen his debate game in the midst of strong competition. Here’s a clip of Biden trying to explain his son Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings. The question was asked about why Joe Biden says that no family member of his would serve on a foreign board while he’s president, but why was that OK while he was vice president?
It’s not that Biden had a horrible night, it was more an average night for him, which may or may not be enough to hold his current level of support. He wasn’t dodging as many attacks as Elizabeth Warren was, but he did take his share of zingers.
One notable point was when Biden claimed responsibility for getting “big things done” in his political career. At that point, Sen. Bernie Sanders shot back attacking Biden over the Iraq War and arguing that not all of Biden’s “big things” were good things for the country.
This was the first debate where Warren — not Biden — seemed to take the brunt of attacks from other candidates on stage. From health care to taxes, the blows just kept coming, and Warren kept fighting back strong. Here’s a particular segment between Warren and Pete Buttigieg over why Warren can’t seem to give a “yes” or “no” answer on the question of whether her health care plan would require middle-class tax increases:
Here’s another clip between Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris over the question of breaking up Facebook and other big tech companies:
Warren was able to hold her ground on most issues, choosing to vehemently fight and not give an inch to her opponents on stage. Based on the attacks, she could’ve had a pretty bad night, but she seemed prepared and ready to respond, almost expecting the amount of criticism she received. In some ways, a barrage allows a candidate to demonstrate their resilience in the face of an onslaught. Warren did well in that regard.
What can be said about Bernie? The man is still ticking strong after a heart attack just two weeks ago. He seemed fit and able to mix it up with the stiff competition on stage proving that he may be able to bounce back to a full campaign schedule soon. In other ways, however, Bernie’s answers and overall theme have become somewhat stale by always playing the defense on his policies, and always beating the same drum against “millionaires” and “billionaires.”
Bernie’s strongest point of the evening perhaps came during his defense of a healthcare overhaul, something he is passionate about. In the face of mounting criticism from some moderate candidates on stage, Bernie cut through the argument making his case that, as he sees it, letting the current system stand is “cruel”:
There’s no denying Bernie’s strong beliefs here, or whether he’s dedicated to the cause. The question remains whether he can reverse a downward trend in the primary and bring voters back to his stable.
Late on Tuesday, following the debate, Bernie picked up an endorsement from three out of four members of “The Squad.” Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib all endorsed his candidacy.
Perhaps that kind of newsworthy story, coupled with Bernie’s consistently solid debate performances might help him get some traction.
Rather than try to move further left than his opponents, Mayor Pete tried to take a slightly different tack. In some ways, this was Buttigieg’s best debate performance so far, perhaps because he never got bogged down in questions about the happenings in his home town of South Bend, Ind., related to police shootings or abortion doctors.
In what some are calling a “takedown” of Beto O’Rourke, the two sparred over gun control with Buttigieg seeming to come out on top:
Buttigieg’s point over and over throughout the night was that Democrats are fooling themselves if they think that removing President Trump by impeachment or by defeating him in 2020 is going to instantly bring the country together. Instead, Buttigieg argues, it will take someone with an even temperament to bridge the gap and create some unity. By pushing liberal proposals, like health care overhauls and mandatory gun buybacks, Buttigieg says that healing simply won’t happen.
Buttigieg also mixed it up with Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard over foreign policy:
In total, not a bad night for Mayor Pete. Whether its enough to draw the attention of voters and dig him out of the fourth-place poll position hovering around 5% remains to be seen.
For much of the time, Harris was more of a background figure except for a few occasions when she managed to get a passionate plea in between other candidates arguing. The one time she did manage to steer the discussion, she made her time count. During a discussion over health care, Harris took the moment to criticize some of her colleagues on stage for leaving our reproductive rights from the debate:
Other than that moment, Harris didn’t add too much to the discussion along the way. She made the case for President Trump’s impeachment, but so did everyone else.
Harris probably didn’t do enough here to bring back her faltering campaign. She played it fairly safe during the night, which means she won’t give voters anything new to consider when continuing to assess her candidacy.
Some of Yang’s supporters claim he “dominated” the debate. His performance wasn’t exactly dominant, but it was much more noteworthy this time around than his previous appearances. This was due in part to a discussion of issues that played well with the core issues of his campaign. Taking place in Ohio, an industrial Midwest state, the discussion over workforce automation and labor fit perfectly with Yang’s pitch for a universal basic income and concerns over mass job losses in the future:
Yang came across well, as he usually does, and his answers were thorough and understandable. He’s still stuck at less than 3% in most polls, but he is bringing new ideas to the political arena and he was informative for viewers.
Booker had his strongest moments discussing President Trump’s impeachment, and later in the evening when he once again chided his fellow Democrats on stage to try and avoid attacking each other. Here’s a clip from his thoughts on gun control, which he steered away from a sole focus on mass shootings and redirected to a discussion on inner-city violence:
Booker usually gives a solid performance, but nothing too out-of-the-box for his stated positions. At this point, especially with his call for unity, he’s probably running for a vice-presidential slot with the eventual Democratic nominee, since it’s likely not going to be him.
This debate could be Beto’s last hurrah on stage since he’s in danger of missing the cut in November. He needed a breakout night, but by most accounts, he didn’t deliver on what he needed. Beto was passionate about the issues, namely gun control, but that passion hasn’t translated into support. You’ve already seen perhaps his worst moment arguing with Mayor Pete on gun buybacks, but here’s something else from Beto’s debate highlight reel:
Republican and conservative groups are already putting Beto’s promise of action against anyone refusing to turn in a weapon covered by his mandatory buyback program into campaign commercials. There is no other candidate, arguably, as ardent on this issue as Beto. The problem, in this case, is that his position doesn’t seem to be moving his poll numbers or creating a groundswell of support.
In the September debate, Beto was ready with his line of “hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15,” but that wasn’t enough. He essentially double-down last night, once again, and it doesn’t look like he has many more places to take his campaign in terms of yet another re-launch.
Steyer was and probably will continue to be a footnote in this campaign, an asterisk for getting on the debate stage not once, but twice, since he has qualified for November as well. Still, with exchanges like this, where Steyer agrees with Sanders about taxing billionaires into extinction, the irony seems lost:
Steyer, himself a billionaire, probably doesn’t have much to sell in this primary. Democrats don’t seem interested in a self-funded billionaire candidate since it might feel too much like Donald Trump. In fact, most voters want to see money out of politics, yet Steyer is only on the stage because he was able to put a lot of his personal money directly into his candidacy and create an opening for him to make the October and November debates. There’s no way he goes much beyond November, especially after a lacking debate performance like this.
Klobuchar came out swinging from the onset, perhaps giving her most aggressive debate performance so far. She needs to do something to turn her campaign around, and maybe she won some more attention last night. One of her big moments came during the healthcare discussion where she seems to shine while trying to appeal to moderate Democrats wary of a massive healthcare overhaul:
Klobuchar played the “middle America” card well, and she’s able to defend her positions. Unfortunately for Klobuchar, the lane she’s pushing into is filled with Joe Biden right now for voters who aren’t keen on Warren or Sanders. Klobuchar made a good stand on Tuesday night, but it could likely be her last since she’s still missing the cut for the November debate.
Gabbard came on this debate stage with a mission to gain attention and perhaps make her case for the final time before a national audience. She’s still missing from the list of qualified candidates for November, but she made her feelings known about the way she’s been treated by media and pundits, specifically by the debate hosts.
Her campaign is calling this clip the “6 minutes that has America searching for Tulsi Gabbard.” You watch and you decide:
She’s not wrong, necessarily, about being unfairly criticized and marginalized, but she’s also not winning many friends in a primary where Democrats are not sold on her brand of politics. She doesn’t fit in with a field of Bernie and Warren, and sometimes she sounds somewhere in between both major parties.
Her shining moments came when discussing foreign policy and defending her position on Syria and other U.S. military engagements. Gabbard went out with a bang, but unless she gets some newfound love from Democratic primary voters, this will be the last debate stage she sees.
With twelve candidates on stage, it became crowded, and Castro seemed to have a difficult time standing out. One of his core issues, immigration, never came up as a topic, so he never got that big moment he was looking for. Here’s Castro speaking to NBC News after the debate because there just aren’t that many clips of him floating around this morning:
Castro, like Booker, is basically running for vice president at this point. He has a polished delivery, and his debate performances have been consistent, but his campaign is probably hitting the end of the road. He won’t be on the stage in November so this might be the end of the line for his debate appearances.