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3 takeaways from the Democratic debate

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks as rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) listens during the debate Wednesday in Atlanta. Credit: AP / John Bazemore

The spotlight at the Democratic presidential debate Wednesday night in Atlanta was dimmer on the primary election’s front-runners — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — than in past faceoffs.

It also didn't shine as brightly on health care and whether to adopt government-run Medicare for All or build on the Affordable Care Act.

The shift in focus meant more time and opportunity for voters to learn about other contenders on the stage — including Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang and California billionaire Tom Steyer — and other topics in the national discourse.

Here are three takeaways:

'Bidens-in-waiting'

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey jostled to present themselves as the pragmatists they believe can mend the country’s divisions.

“All the moderates are Bidens-in-waiting,” said California-based veteran Democratic strategist Rose Kapolczynski. “It’s a contest to inherit his support if he falters and fails.”

Buttigieg, leading in recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, said he is the candidate best positioned to help a fractured United States through the “tender moment” that he said will come after President Donald Trump leaves office.

Klobuchar targeted progressives’ proposals, saying college shouldn’t be free for rich students and those who like their private insurance shouldn’t lose it. The senator, who got substantial airtime, said Americans want Washington to be “honest with them about what we can pay for.”

Booker took issue with Warren’s proposed wealth tax, which targets billionaires.

"It's cumbersome. It's been tried by other nations. It’s hard to evaluate,” Booker said.

Shaky night for Biden

Biden hasn’t had a standout debate performance this primary election, but that hasn’t greatly affected his standing in the polls, considering he is still the front-runner in many national polls and leads comfortably in South Carolina.

But Wednesday night was a very shaky one for him, observers said.

Fordham University associate professor of political science Christina Greer said Biden struggled to “answer a question directly” and appeared not to “think clearly or succinctly.”

Kapolczynski said that in the first half in particular, “Biden couldn’t seem to get a complete sentence out.”

The former vice president struggled with his wording in a discussion on and condemnation of violence against women. 

“We have to just change the culture, period, and keep punching at it and punching at it and punching at it,” he said, then adding when there was nervous laughter from the crowd, “No, I really mean it.”

Later, Biden also misspoke in saying he had the support of the “only African-American woman that had ever been elected to the United States Senate,” referencing former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois. He corrected himself to say “first” as Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who is black, threw up her hands in bemusement.

More than health care

The intraparty debate over Medicare for All and how to pay for it has dominated past faceoffs, but the topic took a backseat Wednesday.

“Health care has been a divisive issue in past debates that has really divided the candidates into more moderate and more liberal camps,” noted Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. “This debate has instead focused on an array of topics, some of which have not gotten extensive coverage in past debates.”  

Those topics included family leave, child care, the #MeToo movement and reproductive rights.

New York-based Democratic consultant Rebecca Katz attributed the new focus to the all-woman panel of moderators, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News and MSNBC, Kristen Welker of NBC News and Ashley Park of the Washington Post.

Koning also applauded the women on the moderating panel, saying they “focused on substantive responses from candidates instead of extensive back-and-forth attacks.”

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