With polls showing a highly competitive primary race and no clear front-runner, the Democrats in Wednesday’s debate acted as if they had decided ahead of time to avoid taking risks or doing much of anything that might cause them to lose momentum at this stage of the campaign.
It was not flashy. It might not be memorable. But it was revealing.
Here are five takeaways:
It was the debate that wasn’t
For much of the night, the showdown in Atlanta felt more like a candidate forum than a true clash of visions, as contender after contender seemed more than satisfied to go long periods reciting elements of their stump speeches, rather than contrasting with one another on policy.
They disagreed politely with one another, and agreed repeatedly about the menace of President Trump.
And so it went on a mostly bloodless evening marked more by civility than caustic confrontations — besides, that is, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who sparred aggressively with both Senator Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Ind., generating two of the three most tweeted moments of the debate, according to Twitter.
The leading candidates went unscathed
A viewer tuning into this debate for the first time would be hard-pressed to say who exactly is the Democratic front-runner in the 2020 primary.
Mr. Biden? Sure, he leads in all the national polls, but few onstage seemed eager to challenge him after others who’ve targeted him — Ms. Harris in June and Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, who did not qualify for this debate — have faded afterward.
Senator Elizabeth Warren? She sure seemed to look like the front-runner a month ago, when she was the object of most of the attacks. But not on Wednesday.
The top four candidates — Mr. Biden, Mr. Buttigieg, Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren — all spoke the most but none of them suffered against sustained incoming. Hours before the debate, Mr. Biden’s campaign had accidentally sent out a post-debate email that hinted of plans to take on Ms. Warren (“We need more than plans”), but no such thing materialized onstage.
The story of the debate was more of punches pulled than landed.
A month after her rivals hammered Ms. Warren for a lack of “Medicare for all” specifics, her fresh $20.5 trillion package to remake the health care system received surprisingly little scrutiny. Mr. Sanders hit Mr. Biden at one point for his support of the Iraq war, but the moderators quickly moved on. Perhaps Mr. Biden’s biggest swing of the night was aimed at an unusual target: dinging the low-polling Mr. Steyer for his past investments in coal.
Buttigieg escaped his moment in the barrel
The evening before the debate, one of Mr. Buttigieg’s top advisers, Lis Smith, posted a GIF about debate preparations for an onslaught of attacks to come.
That did not happen, at least not until the final moments of the debate, and by then Mr. Buttigieg was settled in onstage. When Senator Amy Klobuchar took a swipe at him as a “local official,” he was ready with the retort: “There’s more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?”
When Ms. Gabbard accused Mr. Buttigieg of saying he wanted to send troops to Mexico, he brushed her aside. “Do you seriously think anyone on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?” he said.
For a candidate who has now vaulted toward the top of the field in Iowa, Mr. Buttigieg skated through most of the evening with surprisingly little scrutiny.
Ms. Harris was among those given a chance to take a shot at Mr. Buttigieg over diversity and his lack of support among black voters, but she mostly chose not to do so.
Mr. Buttigieg’s response showed his dexterity as a politician, pivoting to his own lived experiences as a married gay man who understood discrimination deeply and personally, if differently.
“I care about this because while I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country,” he said.
Klobuchar had her best debate yet
The Minnesota senator, who is on a slow but steady climb in Iowa polls, drew sharp distinctions between herself and the candidates she perceives as her most effective foils: Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren.
In a debate devoid of any signature moments or significant rhetorical battles, Ms. Klobuchar delivered a performance designed to appeal to Democrats nervous about the party’s leftward turn and unsure whether to hand the party to a 37-year-old executive of Indiana’s fourth-largest city.
“I’m not going to go for things just because they sound good on a bumper sticker and then throw in a free car,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “We have an obligation as party to, yes, be fiscally responsible, yes, think big, but be honest.”
Her hope is that there are a lot of people in Iowa — where Ms. Klobuchar has bet the future of her campaign — who are drawn to that message.
She didn’t back down when read her comments to The New York Times about Mr. Buttigieg’s relative inexperience. Ms. Klobuchar said it’s true that she believes the women running for president face higher standards than the men.
Asked why her paid family leave proposal, 12 weeks, is less robust than what other candidates are offering, Ms. Klobuchar didn’t apologize.
And she even found an opportunity to deliver the best of the array of jokes she makes on the campaign trail.
“My first Senate race I literally called everyone I knew and I set what is still an all-time Senate record,” she said. “I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends.”
Cory Booker stood out, too
For a candidate on the ropes, Senator Cory Booker, had an impressively strong evening.
He landed a tough hit against Mr. Biden, delivering one of the most notable lines of the night when he wondered if Mr. Biden was “high” for saying he opposed marijuana legalization on the federal level.
“Marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people,” Mr. Booker said.
He argued that the party must nominate someone who can inspire black voters — a knock on Mr. Buttigieg, who has struggled to build support among communities of color.
“We need to have someone that can inspire, as Kamala said, to inspire African-Americans to the polls in record numbers,” Mr. Booker said.
And he closed with one of the most direct pleas of the evening. Mr. Booker’s solid performance in past debates hasn’t been enough to change his fortunes in the race, and he is now at serious risk of failing to meet the polling and fund-raising standard necessary to make the December debate.
“Keep me on the stage,” he all but begged, in his final statement.
Afterward, Mr. Booker reported on Twitter that he had raised more online in the hour after the debate than on any previous fund-raising day.