Iowa’s debate featured a small group of candidates just weeks before the caucus and in the midst of some real campaign drama.
Despite all of that, it felt like a fairly run-of-the-mill night. The candidates were generally fine and the energy a bit low.
Still, here are the biggest successes and failures of the night for each of the six presidential hopefuls:
Former Vice President Joe Biden
High: Biden is best when he conveys his empathy, comfort with emotion and survival in the face of tragedy. He had such a moment when funding daycare came up and he recalled the hardship of raising his two young sons on $42,000 by himself after his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash. He remembered traveling “250 miles” on the train daily to care for the boys while also serving as senator.
Low: Biden is still struggling with his yes vote on the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He said it was a mistake, then reminded everyone for the umpteenth time that Barack Obama chose him as vice president. He needs to find a way to weave in things he’s been right about in regards to wartime to blunt the impact of that vote.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren
High: Warren quickly dispensed with the bait to fight with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) about his alleged comment to her in 2018 that a woman couldn’t be elected president (he denied saying it). She said that she “disagreed” with him at the time, then quickly pivoted to a triumphant line about the electoral success of the women on the stage. The audience erupted into applause.
Low: Still, her total avoidance of a fight with Sanders was odd. She watched him essentially call her a liar right there on stage, saying that he never said that a woman could not be elected, and then she moved on. Though she is clearly trying to avoid a fight with Sanders, there is some evident lingering anger that came through in all of their interactions.
Sen. Bernie Sanders
High: Sanders adeptly dispatched with the ever-present question about whether his democratic socialist identity hurts him with voters. He’s familiar with the question, and he’s good at transforming it into a chance to juxtapose his belief in things like a Green New Deal and raising the minimum wage to Trump’s corporate tax cuts.
Low: Sanders’ worst moment came after Warren’s best. His hairsplitting about his defeat of a Republican incumbent in 1990 was ineffective, and just let an incredulous-looking Warren hammer home that that success is now 30 years old.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar
High: “I won every race, every place every time.” Klobuchar squeezed in lots of mentions of her winning electoral record — a strong argument for someone running as a unity candidate with enough moderate appeal to beat Trump.
Low: Klobuchar fumbled on the names of the Kansas governor at one point, which blunted the effect of her declaration of female power. It was a trend throughout the night — she used her notes as a crutch overmuch and delivered lengthy answers shouted over the moderators that scuttled some of her punchlines.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg
High: Buttigieg’s speech towards the end of the night about his qualities in comparison to Trump was particularly strong, especially his quip about Trump’s bone spurs defense to get out of serving in Vietnam. His passion enlivened the answer, and avoided the pitfall of over-rehearsal he often falls victim to.
Low: Buttigieg’s first question on his readiness to be commander in chief with a backdrop of the conflict with Iran should have been a gift. As the only veteran on the stage, Buttigieg has a special authority on the topic. And yet, he batted it away, giving a broad answer on the many kinds of challenges a president faces.
Billionaire Tom Steyer
High: Steyer deftly handled a question on his past investments in coal and oil and whether they disqualify him from campaigning on climate change. He outlined his personal pivot on the issue, divestment from fossil fuels and commitment to fighting the climate crisis. He turned a real weakness into a compelling redemption story.
Low: Steyer sometimes seems out of his depth on policy. Outside of climate change, his passion project, he was mostly absent from wonky debates about health care and education.