Key Moments From The One-Night ABC Democratic Debate

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Thursday saw the first night that the Democratic field was winnowed to a single debate stage. All the frontrunners stood shoulder-to-shoulder, almost immediately getting into heated exchanges on health care.

Here are the biggest moments from the night:

Getting right to the fight 

The debate opened with wonky, aggressive exchanges between the three frontrunners on health care: former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Most of the debates have begun on this topic, which is frequently rated as the top concern for Democratic voters. But it was a fast way for ABC to exacerbate a big difference between the top polling candidates.

One commonality: President Barack Obama was invoked early and often, as many candidates bent over backwards to give him credit for getting healthcare as reformed as it is.

Multiple candidates redirected their attacks away from fellow presidential hopefuls 

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) deployed a clear shift of strategy in this debate, leaving behind the tactics of yore when she walloped Biden on his old busing position. Her surge from that attack has dissipated while his standing held steady. This time, she made President Donald Trump into her boogeyman.

In that same vein, former HUD Director Julian Castro offered his fellow Texan, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, an olive branch rather than a hard-edged snipe. In stark contrast to his jabs on immigration during earlier debates, Castro gave O’Rourke props for his reaction to the El Paso shooting.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg summed up this tonal shift with a plea for civility amid a heated Castro-Biden exchange: “This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington. Scoring points against each other. Poking at each other.”

Beto gets lots of credit for his response to the El Paso shooting 

By our count, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Harris, Biden, Sanders and Castro all gave O’Rourke a nod for his impassioned plea for reform after the shooting massacre in his hometown, which claimed 22 lives. This is a boon for O’Rourke who has made the shooting a pivot point for his campaign, changing his campaign schedule from the usual early voting state swing to sites of “injustice” perpetrated by the Trump administration.

Very tough questioning 

The ABC moderators’ questioning has felt tough and pointed across the board. From pinging Harris on her prosecutorial record to aiming at Biden for the Obama administration’s deportations to confronting Klobuchar on her support for steel tariffs, the reporters did not hesitate to home in on the candidates’ weaknesses.

They also did not shy away from following up when the candidates tried to duck away from specifics.


Some candidates came equipped with jokes, peppering the night with moments of levity.

Harris’ quipped that Trump is like the “little dude” in the Wizard of Oz revealed by pulling back the curtain (editor’s note: that little dude is the Wizard of Oz).

Booker addressed a question about if he would encourage people to adopt veganism like him. “No,” he said. “I want to translate that into Spanish: no.”  He also joked about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s flowing locks: “I’m the only person on this stage who finds Trudeau’s hair very menacing, but they are not a national security threat.”

A moment for vulnerability 

The last question of the night probed candidates’ greatest examples of personal resilience.

Biden, perhaps the greatest example of personal resilience onstage, gave a touching response on losing so many of his family members, tragedies that strengthened his faith and shaped his worldview.

Warren took the opportunity to talk about her experience being a visibly pregnant woman seeking a job.

Harris spoke about shattering glass ceilings during her legal career in California.

Buttigieg explained how it felt keeping his sexual orientation a secret in the military and in the socially conservative state of Indiana.

Sanders and Booker cited embarrassing political defeats.

O’Rouke spoke about the devastation of the massacre in his hometown, El Paso.

Klobuchar remembered her sick baby, and being booted from the hospital in 24 hours.

Castro talked about quitting his job to vote on the right side of a city council issue.


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