And then there were 12. A debate Tuesday night in Ohio among the biggest group of Democrats yet was notable for attacks directed at the new perceived frontrunner, the emergence of some fresh issues and the playing of some greatest hits (read: healthcare). Here are the key takeaways:
Elizabeth Warren attacked in new role as frontrunner
In earlier debates, the former vice-president Joe Biden was the candidate to scrap with for lesser-known candidates who wanted to make a splash. In Ohio, that torch passed to the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who has popped to the top of some recent polls. Whether the topic was healthcare or wealth inequality, the Democratic field turned their answers into challenges to Warren, who ended the night with a lion’s share of the speaking time.
Early in the debate, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, attacked Warren over what he said were the hidden costs of her plan for Medicare for All. “Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything – except this,” Buttigieg said, accusing Warren’s healthcare policy of having a “multitrillion-dollar hole”.
The Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar piled on: “We want a plan, not a pipe dream.”
The California senator Kamala Harris tried to get Warren to say Donald Trump should be kicked off Twitter, while former representative Beto O’Rourke attacked Warren on her wealth tax proposal: “Sometimes I feel that Senator Warren is more focused on being punitive, or pitting some part of the country against the other, instead of lifting people up.”
But Warren appeared to handle the fire well, saying she backed policies, not punishment. “I understand that this is hard,” she replied on healthcare. “We are going to succeed when we dream big and fight hard.”
A unified chorus on impeachment (almost)
The debate began with a chorus call for the president’s impeachment, with the candidates taking turns articulating why they thought the president had betrayed the public trust and why Democrats in Congress must forge ahead.
“Impeachment is the way that we establish that this man will not be permitted to break the law over and over again without consequences,” Warren said.
“Our Framers imagined this moment, a moment when we would have a corrupt president,” said Harris. “This is one of those moments and Congress must act.”
Klobuchar slammed Trump for what she said was the sale of US foreign policy to the highest bidder. “It doesn’t make America great again, it makes Russia great again, and that’s what this president has done,” Klobuchar said.
“He should be removed,” said the former housing secretary Julián Castro.
The only minor note of dissent was sounded by the Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard, who is polling at less than 1% nationally: “If impeachment is driven by these hyper-partisan interests, it will only further divide us,” she said.
The (elderly) elephant in the room
All three leading Democratic candidates – Biden, Warren and Bernie Sanders – are in their 70s, and the question of whether they are too old to take up the presidency was made explicit for the first time on Tuesday night.
Warren, 71, had the sharpest answer: “I say I will outwork, out-organize and outlast anyone and that includes Donald Trump, Mike Pence, or whoever the Republicans get stuck with,” she said.
Biden claimed his age and experience amounted to wisdom. “I’ve watched it, I know what the job is, I’m engaged,” he said.
Sanders, a Vermont senator, answered a question about whether voters should be concerned about his recent heart attack by inviting everyone to “a major rally that we’re having in Queens”.
“We are going to be mounting a vigorous campaign all over this country,” he said, and he appeared on form throughout the evening. But he concluded by thanking people across the country who offered wishes for his recovery.
“I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, and I’m so happy to be with you this evening,” he said.
Where does that leave Biden?
For the entirety of the campaign, the former vice-president has led in most polls. That hasn’t changed despite seeming stumbles in previous debates – stumbles visible again in Ohio, with Biden saying at one point: “I would eliminate the capital gains tax. Uh, I would raise the capital gains tax, to the highest rate of 39.6%. I would double it.”
The rule for Biden so far has been that such gaffes are irrelevant; so long as he seems his familiar self, he can hold his lead. And on Tuesday night he had some inspired moments, especially on foreign policy.
“We have an erratic, crazy president who knows not a damn thing about foreign policy and operates only [to advance] his own re-election,” Biden said. He warned that if Trump were re-elected, “I promise you there will be no Nato,” and he said: “We have Isis that’s going to come here. They are going to damage the USA.”
Biden also defended his son Hunter Biden, whose five-year membership on the board of directors of a gas company in Ukraine has become the centerpiece of Trump’s re-election strategy.
“My son did nothing wrong,” Biden said. “I did nothing wrong. I carried out the policy of the US government in rooting out corruption in Ukraine.”
Abortion takes the stage
After four debates in which the Republican attack on reproductive rights received next to no airtime, the candidates in Ohio were eager to send up a rallying cry on the issue.
“Women’s access to reproductive healthcare … is under attack,” said Harris, leading the charge. “It is not an exaggeration to say that women will die – poor women, women of color, because of these Republican legislators … [who] are telling women what to do with our bodies.
“People need to keep their hands off of women’s bodies and let them choose.”
Klobuchar imagined a debate on the issue with Trump: “You, Donald Trump, are not on the side of women, you are not on the side of people in this country, when over 70% of people want to keep Roe v Wade on the books.”
Issues not on stage
The debate featured a retread of the major issues to have defined the race on the Democratic side so far: Trump, healthcare, the wealth gap, gun control. While reproductive rights received the first real attention of the cycle on the Ohio stage, there was no substantive discussion of the climate crisis, while other issues of central concern to voters – housing costs, childcare, voting rights, agricultural pollution and crumbling infrastructure – were no-shows.
The one-liner competition
With so many candidates on stage, the contenders all came with a quiver of one-liners (with the exception, notably, of the big three: Warren, Biden and Sanders) meant to help them break through. Klobuchar was a standout.
Here’s a roundup of the sharpest quips:
Klobuchar, attacking Warren on healthcare: “The difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something you can actually get done.”
Castro: “This president is caging kids on the border, and effectively letting Isis prisoners run free.”
Booker: “This president is turning the moral leadership of this country into a dumpster fire.”
Klobuchar, on Trump’s Syria policy: “Our president blew it and now he’s too proud to say it.”
Harris, on drug company executives: “They are nothing more than some high-level dope dealers.”
Steyer: “Trump’s America First program … involves having no plans, having no process and having no partners.”