Democrats had two nights of debates with 20 candidates on two stages. It was clearly a less than perfect set up. Too many people are in the race. As I watched the debates with my brothers and parents, they kept asking, “Who is that person?”  None of the also-rans broke through either night. Even more serious candidates like former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper or Colorado Senator Michael Bennet or Washington Governor Jay Inslee had difficulty distinguishing themselves. They just looked like run-of-the-mill white guys. 

Nevertheless, the debates shook up the Democratic Primary. Four candidates clearly distinguished themselves and benefited from being on stage. California Senator Kamala Harris, Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Cory Booker broke out of the crowd and positioned themselves to rise above the herd. NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio tried but he came across as more annoying than anything. Elizabeth Warren clearly held her own and will likely continue her ascendency. Joe Biden looked tired and a bit confused. And Bernie Sanders continued to sound like a broken record. 

Harris clearly benefited the most. She took direct shots at former Vice-President Joe Biden and rattled him. Harris looked aggressive and confident while Biden looked old and a bit out of place. Harris also had the best line of the night in the second debate. As the debate melted down into a screaming match, she grabbed the attention of the moderators and audience, saying, “Hey, guys, you know what, America doesn’t want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their tables.”

Buttigieg distinguished himself by looking calm in the midst of the chaos that marked the second debate. He was clearly well prepared and came across as the smartest candidate on the stage. Even if he doesn’t win the nomination, he’ll likely be a force in Democratic politics for years to come.

Castro was clearly well prepared but he broke out essentially by clobbering fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke. He went after O’Rourke on immigration. I suspect Castro had two motives: first, he wanted to do something memorable on a crowded stage and singling out somebody clearly did that. Second, he wants to secure the Texas delegates on Super Tuesday if he and O’Rourke survive the early primary states. 

Booker, for his part, managed to engage in almost every conversation on the first night. Again, preparation paid off. He never got rattled and he looked presidential. His presence got him noticed. 

Now, it’s up to all four of these candidates to take advantage of their success. Elizabeth Warren will keep sucking votes away from Bernie Sanders. The others will likely begin taking votes from Biden if they can capitalize on their new notoriety. Right now, I expect to see both Biden and Sanders to sink over the next few months. On a stage that reflected the new America, both looked like throwbacks to a time gone by. 


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