The hype headed into Wednesday night’s Democratic debate was off the charts. Finally Michael Bloomberg would appear on a debate stage. Finally the candidates might be desperate enough to actually go after each other. Finally some of the simmering tensions might boil over. And boy, did it deliver. From the opening seconds, the candidates were firing at each other with endless barrages of searing and sometimes personal criticisms. At times, it felt like everybody was attacking everybody, regardless of strategic value. My biggest take-aways are in the headline. A few additional thoughts about each candidate:
Amy Klobuchar: The Minnesotan was fine, but this was nowhere near the top-flight performance level we witnessed in the New Hampshire forum, which propelled her to a strong third place finish. She seemed ruffled at times, and could not hide her absolute contempt for Pete Buttigieg. She got shafted on a few occasions by the moderators, in my view, but part of her strength last time out was never wasting an opportunity to fully capitalize on her allotted time. She was far less economical and effective in Vegas.
Pete Buttigieg: As usual, calm, cool, calculated, calibrated and collected — sometimes to a fault. He had a strong debate, but not in a way that I really imagine breaking through in a big way. His double-edged sword swipe at Sanders and Bloomberg was smart; he noted that neither of them are really Democrats, accusing Bernie of wanting to burn down the party, and Bloomberg of trying to buy it out. For some of the evening, Pete tactically and correctly focused most of his fire on the frontrunner from Vermont. But he allowed himself to get dragged into other skirmishes, including several pointless (or even counter-productive) grudge matches with Klobuchar. He needed to take serious steps to advancing his cause last night, and I’m not sure he did.
Joe Biden: Better than he’s been in most of the other debates, I suppose, including his strong opening answer about the NBC poll showing him as the best bet to defeat Donald Trump in the fall. He was more energetic than he has been at times, and landed a number of solid points along the way. But his desperation seemed visceral, and many of his shouted answers were uncomfortable to watch. A decent showing overall, but did he eliminate anyone’s fundamental doubts about his candidacy? ‘Status quo-plus’ isn’t what he needs at this stage.
Elizabeth Warren: Small picture, she won the debate. It was her best of the cycle by far, thanks to the wise decision to abandon most of her tired lines, in favor of leveling aggressive and sometimes devastating attacks on her opponents. Everyone landed blows on Mike Bloomberg on issues like stop and frisk, but Warren gutted him on harassment allegations and nondisclosure agreements. It was surgical, ruthless, and devastating. Last night was a real shot in the arm of her flailing campaign.
Michael Bloomberg: Welcome to the actual arena, champ. He recovered his footing a bit in the second half of the debate, and had a few good lines opposing Bernie-style socialism and on understanding business (everyone else on stage were career politicians). But the story of the night were his stunningly terrible answers on wildly obvious attack lines — racially-charged police policies and workplace harassment/NDA allegations. Everyone knew they were coming, and yet his responses were stilted, meandering, bloodless and weak. Maybe he’ll make his wounds heal with another $400 million ad blitz. But it was not a good opening act for the live-and-in-person Bloomberg campaign.
Bernie Sanders: The socialist entered the night as the frontrunner, and ended the night as the frontrunner. He did his usual yelling and ranting about his typical issues, got into some pointed exchanges, but walked away relatively unscathed. His team must be thrilled with Bloomberg’s atrocious handling of the inevitable early pile-on, and even more thrilled with the feuding among other contenders. Warren took a few glancing shots at him, but didn’t land a blow. Buttigieg roughed him up a little, but Sanders held his own. The current trajectory of this race favors Bernie, and Wednesday night didn’t change that at all, in my view, so he’s the big picture winner.