Who shined, who fell flat in the fourth 2020 Democratic presidential primary debate?

Twelve Democratic presidential hopefuls crammed Tuesday night on an Ohio debate stage where several of the 2020 candidates used the opportunity to go after Elizabeth Warren, a progressive U.S. senator from Massachusetts, who took the lead in a recent national poll.

There are now fewer than 140 days to go until South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary on Feb. 29.

On the debate stage Tuesday was: Warren; former Vice President Joe Biden; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana; U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey; U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California; U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas; U.S. Rep. Julian Castro of Texas; entrepreneur Andrew Yang; and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of California. Billionaire Tom Steyer made his first debate appearance also Tuesday.

The State asked political consultants and a political scientist to weigh in.

Here’s what Columbia political consultant Carey Crantford, College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts and Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright had to say about Tuesday’s debate.

1. Who won the debate and why?

Crantford: “Sanders is the clear winner in the debate. He may not have significantly expanded his support, but he did erase any immediate concerns about his campaign remaining viable. A stumbling performance would have seriously deflated his campaign. Instead Sanders often dominated the stage. He was quick, focused and on his game. He also accounted for a number of high points during the debate. It is somewhat surprising that the CNN/New York Times panel didn’t ask him if his recent heath scare and recovery impacted his thinking about healthcare in the country.”

Knotts: “Pete Buttigieg won tonight’s debate. He was poised and drew clear differences between his policies and the positions of the other candidates. Buttigieg was particularly effective challenging Elizabeth Warren’s reluctance to answer a question about whether her health care plan will raise middle class taxes. Buttigieg challenged both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, two of the top three candidates in national polls.”

Seawright: “Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete Buttigieg arguably came the most prepared and had the strongest performance. I think their pragmatic approach and their aggressive tone toward highlighting differences between their opponents stood out for me, and they didn’t do it in a way that was an attack on their opponents.”

2. What was the best line or moment of the night and why?

Crantford: “In the discussion about taxing the wealthy – ‘No one here wants to protect billionaires not even the billionaire on the stage’ — Klobuchar had a good quip, referring to the vagueness of many proposed health insurance plans as being more of a pipe dream than a plan. Sanders may have had the best exchange of the evening. He preempted the direct question about his heath with humor, deflating the question.”

Knotts: “The best line of the night came from Julian Castro. When answering a question about President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, Castro said, ‘This president is caging kids at the border, and letting ISIS prisoners go free.’ In a debate where the candidates fought a lot with each other, it was a smart strategy to criticize Trump. Trump remains very unpopular with Democratic primary voters and Castro’s line drew a connection between two of the president’s most controversial policy decisions, the family separation policy and the withdrawal of troops from Syria.”

Seawright: “The best moment for me was Bernie Sanders thanked his colleagues on the stage for their support during his time of crisis. It’s a rare moment in politics that you kind of see that happening in real time. I think they embraced the moment. That was a surreal moment for me because it was Bernie Sanders but it could have been anyone else at a given time. Joe Biden also did a great job on making conversations about the issues, not about the political noise of the day”

3. What was the worst line or moment of the night and why?

Crantford: “The worse moment of the debate belongs to Gabbard. She fumbled badly her attempt to criticize the news media for what she claimed were negative attacks on her foreign policy positions. It came out of left field and had no value in terms of improving her claim to be a serious leader who has been tested and tempered by her military service.”

Knotts: “Joe Biden was asked a question about his son’s involvement on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. This was probably one of the most anticipated questions of the night. Biden’s response was, ‘My son did nothing wrong, I did nothing wrong.’ I expected Biden to be better prepared and more forceful in his response. I also thought he could have provided a more nuanced response. While Hunter Biden admitted that he used ‘poor judgment,’ Joe Biden did not concede any mistakes or shortcomings with this decision. In this way, he took a page from President Donald Trump, who rarely apologizes or admits a mistake.”

Seawright: “I don’t know if there was a bad moment. I’m not sure that Tulsi Gabbard had a solid night that she probably needed to have or that her supporters thought she was going to have. This was also the first time that Elizabeth Warren was tested, and I think she came off at times as rattled.”

Follow more of our reporting on First in the South

See all 10 stories
Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.