9 takeaways from the Democratic presidential debate’s first night

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was the top-polling Democratic presidential candidate onstage Wednesday night, and the early moments of the party’s first 2020 debate showed why.

Warren was asked four other questions before most of the nine other contenders had been asked two. Her platform set the pace for the night, with other candidates embracing elements of it — or at least passing on opportunities to break directly with her.

Meanwhile, two of the most aggressive candidates onstage, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, chose another target to mercilessly attack: former Rep. gtx_ads_conf.ads["ad-manager-118463-7"]= {"custom_css":[],"ad_details":[{"min_width":"","max_width":"","dfp_ad_sizes":[{"dfp_ad_width":"300","dfp_ad_height":"250"}]}],"ad_id":118463,"ad_container":"div-ad-manager-118463-7","ad_placement":"in-article","ad_name":"ad-manager-118463-7","position":"in_article","article_position":1,"out_of_page_ad":null,"lazyload":"global"};

Castro added: “And I want to challenge all of the candidates to do that. I just think it is a mistake, and I think if you truly want to change the system then we have to repeal that section.”

Democrats’ drift leftward

It took mere minutes, with the focus on Warren’s more liberal policies for the first quarter of the debate, for the contest to show how the Democratic Party has moved left since Trump took office.

Biden and a handful of other candidates are seeking to moderate the party’s message on issues like single-payer health insurance. But the debate showed that most candidates are trying to win over primary voters by showing their commitment to progressive causes.

That leftward lurch was on display throughout the night, with candidates staking out positions on health care, gun control and immigration rights that would have once been viewed as to the far left of Democratic politics.

Warren advocated for an end to private insurance as part of implementing Medicare for All, Booker drew a contrast with his competitors with his plan to require a federal license to own a gun and Castro attacked O’Rourke for not wanting to decriminalize border crossings.

It underscored a view that, even as Democratic primary voters say they are concerned about electability, the party’s candidates believe their path to the Oval Office depends on a motivated base — and that reaching that base won’t cost them too much with the evaporating middle in American politics.

‘There are three women on this stage’

Klobuchar brushed Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee back on abortion rights, responding to his claim that he was the only person onstage to sign into law measures that protect women’s choice by saying that “there are three women on this stage” who have fought for abortion rights.

It was a simple but effective reminder that there are more women on this debate stage and the one Thursday night than you’ve ever seen on a presidential debate stage.

Klobuchar also brought a straightforward approach to the stage Wednesday night. She was the first to attack President Donald Trump, and invoked him in nearly every answer.

Warren sets the pace while O’Rourke wears the target

Warren was the highest-polling candidate onstage Wednesday night, but her opponents showed little willingess to take her on directly.

Instead, several lower-tier contenders had clearly decided their best chance at a breakout moment would come by ignoring her and instead attacking O’Rourke — the candidate positioned to her left.

First, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio assailed O’Rourke for saying his health care plan would preserve a role for private insurance.

“Private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans,” de Blasio said.

Then Castro launched his sustained attack on the issue of immigration.

Warren, meanwhile, dominated the first half hour of the debate. Moderators asked her four questions before any other candidate had been asked a third, and before most had been asked a second. And her vast policy platform steered the terms of the debate.

Booker separates himself on guns

Booker took an opportunity Wednesday night to draw a contrast with other candidates on gun control.

“If you need a license to drive a car, you should need a license to buy and own a firearm,” he said, adding that “not everybody in this field” agreed with that position.

Booker unveiled his gun plan in May. It would create a gun license, making it a federal standard, similar to a driver’s license or a passport. The license would require fingerprints, an interview and completion of a gun safety course.

“My plan to address gun violence is simple,” the New Jersey Democrat said in a statement at the time. “We will make it harder for people who should not have a gun to get one.”

Biden gets a pass

Biden isn’t onstage until Thursday night — but it had seemed likely that other Democrats would have something to say about him.

After all, O’Rourke had criticized Biden’s reversal on the Hyde Amendment. Booker had called on him to apologize for his comments about “civility” with segregationist senators. Warren had cast him as backward-looking and out of touch with systemic problems.

But Biden didn’t come up at all on Wednesday night. Trump was a punching bag, as expected; O’Rourke took a lot of shots; and lower-tier candidates like Rep. John Delaney of Maryland looked to inject themselves at every possible opportunity. But for the most part, the candidates didn’t take aim at members of the vast Democratic presidential field who weren’t there — including the party’s front-runner.

De Blasio goes New York

The exception to that rule was de Blasio.

He was willing to interject at every turn. He pummeled O’Rourke all night. And he also made reference to South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who isn’t onstage until Thursday night.

De Blasio said he’s had serious conversations with his black son, Dante, about how to protect himself.

He went on to describe some of the discussions he’s had with his son, including “how to deal with the fact that he has to take special caution because there have been too many tragedies between our young men and our police, too, as we saw recently in Indiana.”

It was a reference to criticism of Buttigieg after a white police officer shot and killed a black man in South Bend.

“Look, obviously they are going through a tragedy there in South Bend and a lot of cities, including our city, have been through tough, tough moments like that. I certainly, my heart goes out to everyone in South Bend. It is a tough, tough thing to go through,” de Blasio said.