Unlike the relatively polite affair on Wednesday night, the candidates in Thursday’s debate came out ready to scrap. It was a much more spirited affair and produced a series of powerful moments — the vast majority authored by California Sen. Kamala Harris.
* Pete Buttigieg: If you knew nothing about Buttigieg going into Thursday night, you would have assumed from his performance that a) he was a senator or a governor who had been at this for a long time and b) a co-frontrunner with Harris in the race. That person would be stunned to learn that Buttigieg is currently the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and running at the back of the lead pack. He was serious, smart, thoughtful and probing. His outspokenness on why Democrats need not cede religion to Republicans was powerful. His answer on the officer-involved shooting in his hometown was clearly well rehearsed, yes, but it was about as a good an answer as he could give on such a difficult issue. Buttigieg has lots and lots of natural political ability — and it shone through on Thursday night.
* Michael Bennet: Look, I don’t think that the Colorado senator is somehow going to shoot from 1% to relevance in the polls based on his performance in this debate. He wasn’t that good. But, for someone who a) no one knew going into this debate and b) had limited speaking opportunities to make his case, I thought Bennet performed well. Bennet’s incredulity with Biden’s belief that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would start working in a bipartisan way if the former vice president won the White House felt genuine — and was powerful. In short: Bennet came out of this debate looking better than he went into it. Which is a win.
* Bernie Sanders: The Vermont senator learned a tough lesson Thursday night: Debating nine people as one of the frontrunners for the nomination is a very different beast than debating a single, establishment frontrunner when you are the freewheeling insurgent. Rather than passionate, Sanders came off as just plain loud. Rather than committed, he came across as repetitive. And, even worse, there were large periods of the debate where Sanders seemed to just plain disappear. Sanders’ worst — and most damning — moment? Moderator Rachel Maddow read him a quote of his about guns. Sanders responded: “That’s a mischaracterization.” Maddow retorted: “It’s a quote of yours.” The audience laughed — at Sanders. Oomph.
* Marianne Williamson: Watching the author and spiritual adviser on the debate stage reminded me of my own experience playing high school basketball: Hopelessly out of her league. It’s not that Williamson isn’t a politician, it’s that she had zero idea how to navigate a crowded debate stage and make her points. It was also problematic that she didn’t seem to have any, you know, points.
* Andrew Yang: Yang’s online army insisted that this first debate would be his break-out moment — a chance to push his message of the dangers of automation to the general public. The only thing that evoked automation was Yang; in the few moments when he spoke, he sounded like a robot.
* Eric Swalwell: You know that guy in high school who has a catchphrase? And, the first time you hear it, you’re like “That’s not bad!” But by the time he says it for the 30th time before lunch, you have to fight down the urge to vomit in your mouth? That’s Eric Swalwell and “pass the torch.”