- Jonathan Bachman/Reuters
- 2020 Democratic presidential candidates took the stage in Houston on Thursday night for the third round of presidential debates.
- The candidates were unified behind the notion of supplanting President Donald Trump, but the gloves came off on issues such as healthcare and immigration.
- One of the biggest winners of the night was not on the stage: Jorge Ramos, one of several moderators, stood out with his tough, substantive questions throughout the debate.
- Candidates such as Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro were also winners with numerous standout moments.
- Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were in the spotlight early when the focus was on healthcare but faded as the night went on. They weren’t necessarily winners or losers.
- Former Vice President Joe Biden, the current frontrunner, stumbled over his talking points and faced some devastating one-liners from his opponents. He was the biggest loser of the night.
- At the same time, candidates like Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang struggled to set themselves apart.
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The 2020 Democrats took the stage in Houston on Thursday night for the third presidential debate.
Unlike the first two rounds of debates, which each took place over two nights because of the vast number of candidates who qualified, the latest round was a one-night affair. Ten candidates qualified for this debate, based on the Democratic National Committee’s decision to toughen the criteria to get onstage.
While all of the candidates made it clear they’re on the same page in opposing President Donald Trump, things got heated as they sparred over the issues.
But at the end of several hours of the feisty exchanges, Thursday’s debate had a handful of clear winners and losers.
The debate moderator Jorge Ramos was among the biggest winners of Thursday night’s debate, which says a lot about the tired performances from many of those onstage. He asked tough, substantive questions that put candidates in uncomfortable positions and forced them to address issues in a way that went beyond what we’d already heard from them.
Ramos, for example, touched on the Obama administration’s record number of deportations and asked Biden why Latinos should trust him.
Jorge Ramos presses Joe Biden on deportations during Obama admin: "Why should Latinos trust you?"
Biden: "[President Obama] came along with the DACA program … what I would do as president is several more things because things have changed" https://t.co/T37EaVOvlU #DemDebate pic.twitter.com/HM5DzaYfOi
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) September 13, 2019
Ramos stood out from the beginning, delivering opening remarks in both English and Spanish, in which he offered a message to Latinos: “This debate is taking place at very difficult moment for Latinos in Texas and all over the country. That’s why it’s important they know that we know that this is also our country.”
He also did not show a preference for any particular candidate, asking pointed questions of both moderates and those who leaned more to the left. Ramos, for example, asked Sanders to explain why he’d stopped short of calling Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro a dictator, and asked him to explain what differentiated his democratic socialism from Venezuela’s socialism.
Half of the battle in debates is separating yourself from the pack and getting noticed – particularly if you’re not leading in the polls – and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro certainly succeeded in that regard with ruthless jabs at Biden throughout the night.
Castro, who served in the Obama administration, went after Biden for leaning on former President Barack Obama’s popularity while rejecting criticism of his record. “He wants to take credit for Obama’s work but not have to answer any questions!” Castro said.
In another notable moment, Castro seemed to attack Biden over his age, alleging Biden couldn’t remember a talking point about healthcare that Castro said he made “two minutes ago.”
“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Castro said. “Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?”
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, was also a winner on Thursday night with his powerful and personal story of coming out as gay after returning from his deployment in Afghanistan, a representation that’d never been seen before on a presidential debate stage. He used the national spotlight to offer the country a human moment, which is increasingly rare among politicians.
Pete Buttigieg: "I came back from the deployment and realized that you only get to live one life and I was not interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer, so I just came out" https://t.co/FpyGKLIArc #DemDebate pic.twitter.com/KPPm7YkYuY
— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) September 13, 2019
Biden took a lot of hits Thursday night and struggled to land any significant blows in return. The fact he was targeted by other candidates so much was perhaps the only real sign he was the frontrunner.
Biden stumbled over his talking points and came off as far too old-fashioned. When Biden was asked about racial inequality in schools, for example, he trailed off into suggesting Americans should “have the record player on at night” to help kids learn.
Joe Biden on how American families should spend evenings:
"Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night." pic.twitter.com/ghmbdSu5Am
— Washington Examiner (@dcexaminer) September 13, 2019
Sen. Kamala Harris had a solid first debate in Miami that boosted her fundraising and elevated her national profile. But she’s been on the decline ever since. Harris struggled in Detroit, and that trend continued into Thursday night’s debate in Houston.
Harris started off fairly strong on Thursday, going after Trump and ending her opening statement with a joke that the president could “now go back to watching Fox News.”
But she went on to force several jokes that didn’t land, such as when she sought to invoke Obama’s campaign slogan in a quip at Biden: “Hey Joe – instead of saying, ‘No we can’t,’ let’s say, ‘Yes we can.”
Warren and Sanders, both top-tier candidates, were not necessarily losers or winners on Thursday. They got a lot of attention early when the debate focused on healthcare but faded from the spotlight as the night went on. Both are unlikely to gain or lose much from the debate.
The same could be said of candidates in the middle of the pack such as Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who had some strong moments on issues like criminal justice and gun violence but seemed tired and struggled to set themselves apart on other topics.