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Winners of the first Democratic debate

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami, as Sen. Cory Booker , D-N.J., and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, listen. Credit: AP/Wilfredo Lee

Modern television debates are a lousy way to assess political candidates, but as Winston Churchill said of democracy, they’re the best method yet devised.

Even so, as debates go, Wednesday’s 10-person Democratic presidential forum in Miami was an exceptional one. Each of the candidates comported himself and herself well. If you liked Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar before the debate, you’ll still like her after the debate, maybe more so. Same goes for Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney or Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

While every candidate spoke well, only three, in the eyes of this viewer, made themselves felt. And that’s what matters most. They are Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and lesser-known former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who turned in a surprisingly strong performance.

Warren conjures the town-hall-meeting activist clutching Robert's Rules of Order and an overflowing sheath of notes. She is meticulously prepared and utterly fluent on issue after issue. I scribbled three words while watching her:  “Woman on fire.” There’s no question about it; her commitment to her political viewpoint scalds the microphone.

Warren easily dominated the first hour of the debate.

Booker had been waiting for a breakout moment, and on Wednesday he got it. Booker exudes passion when he speaks, particularly on conditions in inner-city communities like the one in which he lives. Even more than Warren, Booker puts his heart and soul into his rhetoric and it easily comes across. He is likable, and he speaks without trepidation, knowing exactly what he wants to say seemingly sans calculation.  That’s going to serve him well going forward.

I’d hand the second half of the debate to Booker.

Castro was palpable in a different way. He came across as scrappy, polished and sharp as a tack — someone you wouldn’t want to tangle with on live TV. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke found that out early in the debate. He wilted as Castro hammered him on immigration law, never quite recovering from the exchange. Like Warren, Castro appeared exceptionally well versed on issues. Look for him to move up modestly in the field.

Another candidate who did unexpectedly well was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. His may be a hill too steep to climb, but he should be proud of Tuesday’s performance. De Blasio was able to point to concrete accomplishments as mayor, and he seemed utterly comfortable on a presidential stage, no doubt aided by six years in front of the ravenous New York City press corps.

The candidate I marked as most likely to drop from the field early is Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. He had a record to point to — he also pointed a lot with a finger throughout the debate — but there was a clear charisma gap, I thought, between him and the rest of the candidates.

Thursday night's debate promises to be more exciting than a very good Wednesday debate. It will feature poll-leader and former Vice President Joe Biden; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s running in second place in most surveys and freshly coined political star; and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, among the 10 candidates who will be featured.

But Wednesday's takeaway was clear, to this American at least: Elizabeth Warren is for real; Cory Booker has the ability to become transcendent; and, if you’re looking for a dark horse, keep a fixed eye on Julian Castro. 

He was the unexpected winner of the night.

William F.B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.