The first round of the Democratic primary debates — which, of course, are not really debates; you can’t have a debate with 10 contestants on the stage — showed that second-tier candidates can still break through, at least for a night.
For Thursday night’s second round, which features most of the primary leaders, that should give hope to Colorado’s own third-tier candidates, John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet. At first glance, it seemed like that Hick and Bennet both were fortunate to have drawn the second round, giving them a chance to both critique and and compete with the leaders. Now I’m not so sure. It’s fair to wonder how much time they’ll get in the top-heavy second debate and whether they might not have stood out more against weaker competition in Round 1. It worked for Julian Castro, Corey Booker and also Amy Klobuchar, who’s fighting for a spot in the Biden middle lane. In fact, you can argue that Castro was the real winner of the debate.
The only second-tier candidate who had a bad night in Round 1 was Beto O’Rourke, who struggled in the format. He didn’t seem all that charming and definitely didn’t seem to be as well versed in policy. Ten people on stage doesn’t work for anyone, but it really didn’t work for a mushy-sounding Beto. In other news, he and Booker and Castro can speak Spanish to one degree or another. Who among us isn’t kicking him/herself for taking French in school?
Elizabeth Warren has made policy important again. But what she really showed in the first debate — from which she was left basically unchallenged as the only top tier candidate on stage — is that the leftward tilt of Democratic politics is for real. The moderators tried to get the more moderates candidates to challenge Warren on some of her more progressive goals. Well, it seems like the other nine on the stage had a plan for that — they wouldn’t play. There just wasn’t anything to be gained by attacking Warren or her progressive platform.
Warren took her own by risking going all in on Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-for-all. She made it clear with that move that her first goal is to catch and pass Sanders — polling has shown her moving up — to become the left standard bearer.
What I did see a lot of on my Twitter was Warren-Booker and Warren-Castro as a potential ticket. Booker was able to show why he should be polling higher than 2-3 percent. Castro came from nowhere, showing real passion and knowledge, particularly on immigration. The only time a real debate broke out was when Castro took on O’Rourke on immigration. Castro, to the left of Beto on this issue, also seemed to win the standoff easily.
And tonight? I’m thinking it could be different. Biden and Sanders barely got a mention in the first debate. Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg were shut out. I’m assuming Harris will challenge Biden. She might challenge Bernie. Mayor Pete? He’ll be on the defensive for his handling of the police shooting in his city.
Meanwhile I read in The Denver Post that Hick didn’t plan to attack Sanders on socialism, but he will almost certainly be asked the question directly — and probably early — and I doubt he’ll duck it. A debate could break out on the issue, which could only help Hickenlooper. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bennet and Hickenlooper challenge Sanders on Medicare for all. Both favor a public option instead. Bennet, meanwhile, was the one of the bipartisan Gang of 8 that crafted a comprehensive immigration bill. The House killed it. This leads to his favorite topic — congressional dysfunction and the corrupting force of money. Hickenlooper might also be schooled from Gov. Jay Inslee’s performance in Round 1. No one seemed very impressed by what he was able to do as governor of the state of Washington.
This is a big night for Hickenlooper and Bennet, but I think more so for Hick. Bennet, who got a late start, is still putting staff together. Hick has gotten lots of media buzz, shows up everywhere and his average poll numbers are still stuck at under 1 percent. If something doesn’t change soon for him, it’s questionable whether anything will.