As it turned out, clearing the stage of the third-tier candidates in Thursday night’s Democratic debate really made it easier to hear more from and get a better sense of the second-tier contestants.
Only seven candidates hit the fundraising and polling marks necessary to earn a podium spot at Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles.
Of those, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and tech guru Andrew Yang probably benefited the most from an increased opportunity to speak. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg had some very high highs and low lows, and billionaire Tom Steyer, while he was able to get his message out better than ever before, was not able to imbue it with any charm or warmth.
For former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, simply because their positions, style and mannerisms are so well-known, it has become difficult to shine on most policy questions. But Biden did have his smoothest showing yet, and Warren showed moments of real relatability and even humility. Sanders was as he always i an has been, which may well be his greatest strength.
None of the candidates passed muster on the opening question, on how to explain to Americans why President Donald Trump needs to be removed via impeachment because not one said they’d do what they demand Majority Leader Mitch McConnell do and wait to hear the evidence in the Senate trial before making up their minds.
But after that many of the questions were more unexpected, which was the best part of this event.
A question to former Vice President Joe Biden about why he and former President Barack Obama failed to close our detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, left the frontrunner sputtering a bit, then expounding on Israel and the Palestinians.
A query on how to run against Trump in a strong economy let Yang shine because he didn't answer with platitudes about an economy that only works for billionaires, as several opponents did. He used specific points about rising rates of suicide and depression and life expectancy rates declining three years in a row in the United States to argue that things are not so great.
Steyer was as forceful as he always is on global warming, but with more time to speak, more convincing than he’s been in the past.
And a major food fight broke out among the candidates who romance big contributors, like Buttigieg and Biden, and those who don’t, like Sanders and (of late) Warren. Klobuchar, playing the adult in the room, broke that argument up after a savage five-minute back and forth that settled nothing, and got the debate back on track.
The PBS/Politico debate often featured nitty-gritty questions focused on the divides in the Democratic Party that have not gotten enough attention and are important, and it was at its best in these moments. It was at its worst when it devolved to rehashing everyone’s take on Medicare for All and exactly whom each candidate wants to give free college.
And this brings us to a problem with this system of endlessly repetitive stage fights. When the debate system came into being there were no campaign websites, no Google, no Wikipedia. There was no YouTube on which to watch the last debate and no CNN or Fox News on which the candidates were endlessly dissected. There was not even a DVR, so if you missed one debate you had to catch the next one, so there had to be a next one. Today information about the candidates, particularly the top ones, and their positions, is everywhere.
That does not mean these debates today can’t be fascinating, but it does mean that to be so the questions must be unique and thoughtful, the formats varied and creative.
Thursday night, the PBS/Politico debate actually did pretty well with that charge.
And it was at its weirdest, at the end, when the candidates were asked “Is there a candidate from whom you’d like to ask forgiveness, or a candidate to whom you’d like to give a gift?”
It seemed like a question they’d all evade, and most did, but not Warren.
“I’d like to ask for forgiveness,” Warren said. “I know sometimes I get a little worked up, and sometimes I get a little hot, and I don’t mean to.”
She explained that her passion stems from the stories of the people she meets, pointing to one family, for instance, that cannot afford the insulin they need.
Klobuchar, the only other woman on stage, also asked for forgiveness for any time she has offended the other candidates or made them mad.
None of the men did.
It was an interesting companion response to an earlier question, about candidates’ responses to Obama’s recent proclamation that if women were in charge in the world “you’d see a significant improvement in almost everything.”
It was a theory none of the men on stage gave much credence.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.