The debate that was and the debate that wasn’t

Of the ten participants in tonight’s Democratic presidential debate, only two — Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — have a realistic hope of being nominated. Thus, we might have expected that these two would clash, the way we expect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to lock horns tomorrow night.

But that didn’t happen. It was the debate that wasn’t.

The debate that was turned out to be Sanders-Warren versus three less extreme candidates — no-hopers all — who attacked from the right. John Delaney was the most effective of the trio, but John Hickenlooper and Tim Ryan had their moments.

The attacks gave Warren and Sanders the opportunity to double-down on their leftism, thereby firing up their supporters and sounding fierce enough to raise confidence that they can hold their own if they face Donald Trump.

Since Warren and Sanders didn’t clash, there was no clear winner between the two. However, I give the nod to Warren because she came across as less weird than Sanders. If I were a left-wing Democrat, I’d be less uncomfortable with Warren as the standard-bearer than with Bernie. But I’m not, so what do I know?

In hindsight, it makes sense that the debate took the shape it did. Warren and Sanders will have other opportunities to go at it. There was no need for them to unload on each other tonight. And doing so would have risked ceding some of the left lane. To clash, one would have had to be to the right of the other at some level. Neither was going to move there.

The three no-hopers needed to stand out in order to meet the increased threshold of support that applies to qualifying for the next debate. The best way to do it was to pick a fight with the leftist frontrunners, debate them effectively, and win a measure of support from center-left Democrats.

It will be interesting to see if any of the three who employed this approach — Delaney, Hickenlooper, and Ryan — makes the cut. I hope at least one does. My preference is Delaney.

What about the other five debaters? Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke stayed out of the debate that was. Both probably believe they will qualify for the next round, so why take a side now in the hard-left versus soft-left debate?

O’Rourke wanted to show that he’s a capable performer, notwithstanding his awful showing in the last debate. I think he succeeded. O’Rourke spoke well tonight, plus he had a decent shave.

Buttigieg didn’t win the debate, but he easily captured the award for sanctimony. He’s a preachy dude. Did he help himself tonight? I don’t think so.

Amy Klobuchar didn’t join the attack from the right on Warren and Sanders — not directly, anyway. She’s too Minnesota nice for that, or maybe too cowardly.

Klobuchar was content to distinguish herself from the two radicals without going after them. Oh, and did you know that she wins in Minnesota, including its Red districts?

I thought Klobuchar’s performance was flat. Arguably, it was the worst of the ten candidates. If anything, she may have lost ground, which, given her low numbers, she can’t afford to do. I reckon that Klobuchar will qualify for the next debate, but that she’ll be on or near one of the flanks.

Speaking of winning in tough states for Dems — genuinely tough ones, not Minnesota — Steve Bullock is the Democratic governor of Montana. He must have something going for him to have accomplished this, and he did have a few good moments when he joined the attack against the two ultra-left candidates. Bullock was also the most folksy candidate, if that’s worth anything to Democrats.

However, I don’t think Bullock moved the needle. Consider him another no-hoper.

Marianne Williamson was easily the most entertaining performer tonight. I look forward to her talk show on a major cable news network, although I’ll probably only be able to take it in ten minute doses.

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