WASHINGTON, D.C. — The sprawling Democratic primary field has been headed toward a three-person race, and despite strenuous efforts by the trailing candidates, Thursday’s debate seems unlikely to have significantly changed that.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have pulled away from the pack in most national and early-state polls over the last month.
It should not be surprising that those three candidates have risen to the top of the field of more than 20: Biden, Sanders and Warren are the three contenders who came to the race with a national political brand, and they have used their campaigns to hone their messages with a clarity that none of their competitors has.
More surprising is the fact that, in a campaign that started with paeans to the party’s need for youth and diversity, none of the many other candidates has elbowed into a place among the three white septuagenarians.
The problem: While some of the second-tier candidates have had solid attention-grabbing campaign moments, none has been able to translate them into durable political gains.
Thursday’s debate in Houston presented those candidates with one of a dwindling number of opportunities they will get to keep a broader choice before primary voters.
It won’t be clear for a week or more whether any of them had true breakout moments. But the seven rivals on the stage tried just about every tactic in the book.
While the candidates all labored to draw distinctions among themselves, they also leavened the debate with more kind words for one another than in the previous confrontations, sensitive to the risk of alienating voters who want the party to come together.
The result was lavish praise on Sanders for having pioneered Medicare for All; on former Rep. Beto O’Rourke for his handling of the aftermath of a mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso; and especially on former President Barack Obama, a shift in tone from the July debate, when some candidates criticized his policies and took heat from Obama loyalists for doing so.
Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris both took time early on to praise Obama’s handling of health care, even as they touted plans that would go significantly beyond Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act. Both candidates have been seeking to expand their support among African American voters, a group that gives the edge to Biden and among whom Obama remains especially popular.
Still, the spotlight shone most brightly on the top three candidates: They were the target of barbs. Biden and Warren got the most speaking time. And they demonstrated a great deal of how they hope to play their hands and compete with one another in the next, more intense chapter of the primary campaign.
Warren, for the most part, aimed her criticism at corruption and the political system, not her rivals. Political analysts have been predicting that at some point Warren and Sanders, ideological soulmates, will have to begin drawing distinctions between each other. That time did not come Thursday.
Though she has yet to put out her own detailed plan for health care, Warren doubled down on her commitment to Sanders’ signature health care proposal, Medicare for All.
Sanders focused more on drawing distinctions with Biden — saying they were on the opposite side of Obama-era policies on trade and the Iraq War.
Biden took a swipe at Warren for dodging a question about whether middle-class families would see their taxes go up under Medicare for All. Though he may never escape his habit of verbal wandering, he has grown more comfortable than he was earlier in his criticisms of his two liberal rivals for going too far and wanting to spend too much.
Thursday was the first time Biden appeared on the same debate stage as Warren, at a time when his advisers indicate that they see her as a bigger threat than Sanders. Even though she still ranks closely with Sanders in most polls, trading second and third places in different surveys, Warren’s campaign has shown unique strength: She is the only candidate who has shown steady growth in polling over the last several months, while Biden and Sanders have mostly plateaued.
The other candidates on the stage have not yet managed even a plateau.