As I’ve written a few times in my running commentary, this was better than I expected. The debate was run well. Most of the candidates did well or better than I expected. It was refreshing and positive in a way I didn’t expect. Donald Trump came in for a decent amount of criticism. But given the centrality of a sitting President to the opposition party and a President this consistently bad, predatory and corrupt, he played a surprisingly small role in the proceedings. I was caught off guard by how refreshing that was.
The stand out to me was Cory Booker. Especially in the first hour he took possession of the stage. He had a really strong performance. He made me think about him seriously again as a nominee after I’d mainly written him off my list of real contenders. I think he’s the big story of the night – both on the merits and as someone who did well and needs to make a move into the top half-dozen candidates.
Warren started shaky and seemed to recede into the background in the first hour. But she was much stronger and more present in the second hour. Her closing remarks were particularly strong, maybe her strongest moment of the evening. It’s good to end well. I think Booker had the best evening. But a lot of my judgment here is that Warren is already in a strong position and getting stronger. She could have a ho-hum performance and still be fine. He needed something stand out. I think he got it. They both put in solid performances.
Another big standout to me was Bill De Blasio. I live in New York. I actually think he’s been a very good verging on a great mayor. He ran on a strongly progressive platform after twenty years of Republican mayors. He won. And with little fanfare he put his whole platform into effect. Universal pre-K, the end of Stop-and-Frisk. He doesn’t get a lot of respect because he’s been sort of absent in his second term. The national media, which is mainly based here, has all sorts of problems with him. I have no friggin’ idea why he thought it made any sense for him to get into this race. But almost all his answers were surprisingly strong. Clear, breaking through cant and bromides. I kept being surprised at the quality and power of his answers and performance. I don’t think there’s any credible path to him being a contender. But I was surprised by this.
Julian Castro was another standout. I don’t think at the level of Booker or De Blasio. But still a strong performance. He took command of the stage several times, which is a bigger deal than people often realize.
Ryan had some moments. He’s not going to be the nominee. Delaney was like from another era or another political planet. Gabbard is so out there she’s not even on my radar.
O’Rourke did better in the second hour. But I was surprised how wooden and unprepared he seemed. On paper and in the polls, he’s about where Booker is. But he seemed surprisingly weak, unfocused, sort of staggering at points. Very weak performance. Klobuchar did better toward the end. But she seemed unfocused and not resonating on any of the big conversations that are driving the campaign. Inslee seemed fine. He’s focused on the globally most important issue the world and the country are facing. But he seemed at a distance throughout the debate. Not bad in a way that O’Rourke and Klobuchar were disappointing. Just didn’t cut through the noise.
On balance, Booker seemed like the story of the evening. Warren started wobbly, ended strong. She stays basically where she is which is moving into second place and perhaps more than second place since Biden remains in some ways a placeholder frontrunner.