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Who Won The First Democratic Debate?

Elizabeth Warren

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination shifted into top gear here on Wednesday night, with the first debate of the 2020 election cycle.

Ten candidates took to the stage of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami. Another ten of their rivals will follow on Thursday.

It was a big night for Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Warren was particularly strong in the first half-hour of the debate, when her answers — forceful, succinct and substantive — set her apart from everyone else on stage.

During those crucial opening exchanges, Warren got to hit some of her favorite themes, including the misdeeds of the corporate world (“corruption, pure and simple”) and her advocacy of “Medicare for All.”

In making her case for the latter topic, she blasted health insurance companies for what she portrayed as gratuitous profiteering.

Warren got applause from the debate audience Wednesday night when she said she had a “plan” for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Asked by MSNBC’s Chuck Todd if she had a “plan” for McConnell if he is still the Senate majority leader in 2021, when the next presidential term begins, Warren replied: “I do.”

“Short of a Democratic majority in the Senate, you better understand the fight still goes on. It starts in the White House and it means that everybody we energize in 2020 stays on the front lines come January 2021,” Warren said.

“We have to push from the outside, have leadership from the inside and make this Congress reflect the will of the people,” she added.

Warren has drawn attention in the early months of campaigning by releasing a series of policy proposals as she seeks to distinguish herself in the crowded Democratic presidential primary field, selling merchandise from her campaign site touting that “Warren has a plan for that.”

McConnell is a top antagonist for Democrats, who worry that if Republicans keep control of the Senate in 2021 that he’ll squash top progressive proposals like the Green New Deal or “Medicare for All.”

McConnell, who is up for reelection next year in Kentucky, has leaned into his role as the “grim reaper” for progressive policies that Democrats are pushing to get through Congress.

Though Republicans are defending two dozen Senate seats, most of them are in red states, giving Democrats a narrow path to picking up the Senate during the 2020 election.

Republicans currently have a 53-seat majority. Democrats will need to pick up three seats and win back the White House to control the chamber in the event of a 50-50 tie. To win the back the chamber outright, they’ll need to pick up four seats and hold onto the seat in the deeply red state of Alabama, where Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) is on the ballot.

Several candidates knocked McConnell during Wednesday night’s debate, but Warren and McConnell have locked horns for years.

Republicans voted in 2017 to temporarily block the Massachusetts Democrat from speaking from the Senate floor after she gave a speech critical of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) during his confirmation to be attorney general. The exchange gave rise to the phrase “she persisted,” which quickly became a mantra for the women’s rights movement.

“Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation,” McConnell said in 2017 after the vote to temporarily silence Warren. “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Moderates always face a challenge in primaries, and that problem is especially acute during the tenure of President Trump, an intensely polarizing figure.

The strong audience reactions on Wednesday for Warren, Castro and, to some degree, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio outlined activists’ appetite for unapologetic progressivism.

But the same dynamic was a real problem for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) who is hoping to appeal to moderates, and perhaps, disaffected Republicans.

Klobuchar’s skepticism about Medicare For All drew an icy silence in the hall, as did her cautious answer on decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings.

O’Rourke’s evasiveness on whether he would favor a top personal tax rate of 70 percent was met with a similarly flat response.

It’s plausible that the broader TV audience might be warmer toward centrist candidates than the activists and party loyalists who make up a live debate crowd.

But it’s also possible that the atmosphere in the hall predicts a broader desire among Democrats for a more muscular approach.

The one-sentence summary: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) won the first Democratic showdown.

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