Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) laugh together during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate

The Highs, Lows, and Biggest Takeaways From Last Night’s Democratic Debate

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Last night was the first Democratic debate and with ten candidates onstage, a lot happened.

Let’s talk about who came out on top.

Elizabeth Warren

Warren was the frontrunner from her grouping going into last night’s debate, and with the exception of a few people who just don’t like it when women speak or express any emotion other than maternal warmth, it’s hard to imagine her numbers going anywhere but up. As we talked about yesterday, these early primary debates aren’t really debates; they’re “PR opportunities” for candidates looking to have a standout moment and break out of the pack.

Warren, though, showed up for a debate. She showed up prepared and ready to talk details and make decisive declarations on a whole range of issues.

Her performance might not have had enough wow factor to hook a ton of voters who didn’t already have her on their radar. But it was absolutely impressive.

Julián Castro

If one person succeeded in having that breakout moment and making people take notice of him, it was definitely Castro. He not only was able to share his bold immigration plan, but he challenged the other candidates to join him in his proposal to decriminalize border crossing, meaning he got to steer the debate around the issue–an incredibly impressive thing for a lesser-known candidate on a stage with nine other people.

Other candidates tried to do this throughout the night–most notably Bill de Blasio, who repeatedly challenged Beto O’Rourke on issues–but none of them were as successful as Castro.

Also, immigration wasn’t the only issue where he stood out. He had a number of great, strong moments.

He really earned this:

Who didn’t do so well?

Beto O’Rourke

Beto was outclassed on that stage by people with far more experience than he has and it showed. He seemed to have a target on his suit jacket as other candidates directly challenged him. (Castro at one point chastised him for not being more informed in regard to his immigration plan, telling him “If you did your homework on this issue, you would know.”)

It wasn’t just those attacks he had trouble responding to, though. He very obviously came in with stump statements he wanted to give, and he espoused them, regardless of what had been asked. He was repeatedly asked to just answer the question after he’d used up his time on other things.

Pretty much all the white guys.

If you didn’t know their names going into last night, you probably don’t know them now. I don’t know if any of these guys will be in the next round of debates.

As for the middle of the pack, Cory Booker did fine. I doubt he became anyone’s new favorite last night but he did speak more than any other candidate so he probably at least made an impression. Also, his comments on gun violence were powerful and he directly attacked the gun lobby and the idea of “thoughts and prayers” without action.

Amy Klobuchar didn’t make much of an impression. Tulsi Gabbard was … also fine. She didn’t embarrass herself–or at least, not on the stage. At one point, this pettiness was tweeted from her account:

Some stand-out moments:

  • Beto (and Booker) infused Spanish into their answers. When O’Rourke broke out into Spanish during his first answer, it turned into a very memeable moment:


    Although it turned out Booker’s WTF look was more likely panic realizing Beto beat him to his own plan.

    The reactions to the use of Spanish were divided, with a lot of praise for inclusivity (especially since the debate was being broadcast on Telemundo as well) but some others viewed it as pandering. It also would have been nice if O’Rourke had used Spanish to actually answer the question he was aksed.

  • Klobuchar got in a good jab. When Jay Inslee tried to say he was the only person on the stage who has “advanced the ball” on reproductive rights (since as governor, he signed legislation on the issue into law), Klobuchar reminded him that “there are three women up here who fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.”It was a great moment on a historic night–the first time ever that more than one woman has been on the presidential democratic stage at a time. In fact, after tonight’s debate, there will have been more women on that stage this week than in all previous election debates combined.
  • Technical difficulties. Halfway through the debate, Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd took over as moderators, but the previous mods’ mics had been left on. It wasn’t a big deal and Todd handled it well, throwing back to commercial, but it did prompt Donald Trump to tweet this genuinely psychotic video:

There were more big moments but these were the ones that stood out to me. Let me know what your favorite/least favorite/most WTF moments from the debate were in the comments.

And now we get to do this all again tonight with 10 new candidates!

(image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.