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Winners and losers in first 2020 Democratic presidential primary debate

The State asked three political scientists and a South Carolina political consultant for their assessment of Wednesday’s inaugural Democratic presidential primary debate.

Wednesday was the first round of a two-night series that continues Thursday night in Miami for the first presidential primary debates of the 2020 election.

Candidates who took the stage Wednesday were: U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Here’s what the College of Charleston’s Jordan Ragusa, Winthrop University’s Scott Huffmon, University of South Carolina’s Todd Shaw and Columbia political consultant Carey Crantford said:


Crantford: “The best line of the night may have been delivered at Trump’s expense,” during a question about foreign policy. Klobuchar remarked: “This president is literally every single day 10 minutes away from going to war, one tweet away from going to war. I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at five in the morning.”

Huffmon: “Well, they all thought they had a winning quip when they mentioned the South (including S.C. Democrat Jaime Harrison, who is running to challenge U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2020, and the Charleston church shooting). But, truth be told, the average voter wasn’t paying attention. ... Quips don’t matter when you aren’t able to distinguish yourself from other candidates.”

Ragusa: “I thought the debate was remarkable … for its lack of remarkable lines. I expected the candidates to go after Trump with several memorable quotes.”

“I thought Bill de Blasio had the best single line of the night” addressing the ailing working class as the debate turned to the migrant crisis at the Southern border: “For all the American citizens out there who feel you’re falling behind or feel the American dream’s not working for you, the immigrants didn’t do that to you. The big corporations did that to you,” de Blasio said.

“It challenged the president and his voters simultaneously,” Ragusa said of de Blasio’s remark.

“Both O’Rourke and Booker deserve a runner-up award for their remarks in Spanish.”

Shaw: “Klobuchar to Inslee after he touted his bonafides in protecting abortion rights. Klobuchar responded: ‘There are three women up here who fought pretty hard for a women’s right to choose.’”


Crantford: “There weren’t really any significant gaffes. ... However, O’Rourke’s unexpected switch-off from English to Spanish during his opening question seemed ill-timed and jarring. De Blasio’s aggressive posture also seemed to work against him. He appeared to almost embrace the stereotype of the pushy New Yorker. His debate style was distracting.”

Huffmon: “(Moderator) Chuck Todd trying to get candidates to lose their temper.”

Ragusa: “It seemed like a safe performance by the candidates, so the worst line goes to Chuck Todd for asking for a ‘technical break’ after an NBC News microphone issue.”

Shaw: Ryan being corrected by Gabbard after saying the U.S. must stay engaged in the Middle East or “the Taliban will grow and they will have bigger, bolder terrorists acts.”

Gabbard, who served in Iraq and Kuwait with the National Guard, was quick to respond: “The Taliban didn’t attack us on 9/11. Al-Qaeda did.”

Ryan’s campaign claimed in a statement after the debate that Gabbard “contorted a factual point (Ryan) was making— about the Taliban being complicit in the 9/11 attacks by providing training, bases and refuge for Al Qaeda and its leaders.”


Crantford: “It was a mild scrum. Everyone was angling for the same objective – being memorable without alienating anyone in the process. The format along with the number of panelists worked against having any breakout. There was not much time for any candidate to push a narrative or engage. As a result, the frontrunners (particularly Warren and Booker) seemed to benefit most. ...

Warren held her position as leader of the assembled pack. She was earnest, full of plans and, in the end, very passionate. ... Sen. Booker made good use of the opportunity and showed strength and conviction. O’Rourke had a slow start, but became stronger by the end. His close was the best part of his debate effort. But the biggest winner of the night may have been President Trump. If the number one issue for Democrats is beating Trump – no one made much of an argument during the debate for why they were the best candidate to do so.”

Huffmon: “Not a single candidate rose up from any other candidate. On the flip side, any candidate who hit the marks their supporters hoped for is going to seem to be a winner in their eyes. Period. It doesn’t matter how actually bad or how well they did.”

Ragusa: “Elizabeth Warren won. She entered the debate in a bad spot as the only frontrunner on the stage. And, by my count, she got a disproportionate number of the direct questions. Yet, she had solid answers and was able to remain above the fray.”

Shaw: “There was no clear winner, per se. However, for those who believe Elizabeth Warren’s star is rising, this debate did not dim it. Her populist credentials are clearly intact. Cory Booker clearly demonstrated that in the particular field of 10 candidates that he has presence or eloquence.

Shaw also noted it was interesting that the candidates focused on policy, rather than on attacking Trump. “And, again, to the degree the debate is policy focused is the degree to which Warren benefits ... being a candidate who has famously stated, ‘I’ve got a plan for that.’”

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.