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Analysis: Winners and losers from Democratic presidential debate’s first night

Highlights from the first Democratic presidential debate
Ten candidates packed the stage for the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 campaign in Miami.

Below are some winners and losers from Wednesday’s Democratic debate.

WINNERS

► Elizabeth Warren: The senator from Massachusetts went into the debate with the biggest target on her back as the highest-polling candidate onstage Wednesday. But she largely skated. Other candidates didn’t seem to have the appetite to put her on the spot. After Warren got the first question, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey got chances to offer differences with Warren on her proposals — free college, a huge tax increase on the wealthy, and breaking up big companies, respectively. None of them took the bait, with only Klobuchar offering something of a quibble — the idea that taxpayers pay for rich kids’ tuition — and even she didn’t actually tie that to Warren’s proposal.

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► Julian Castro: For someone on the periphery of much of the 2020 debate, he made a splash. He made a strong statement about the father and daughter who drowned this week in the Rio Grande, saying everyone should be ‘‘pissed off’’ about it. Later, after he jousted with fellow Texan O’Rourke on immigration, other candidates emphasized their agreement with Castro. It’s a great sign when other candidates are straining to show they agree with you.

Bill de Blasio: Since making a late entry into the field, the New York mayor has been the butt of more than a few jokes in Washington and New York media. He’s also by far the most unpopular candidate. But he was on his game: He cut in to get more time. He talked about having hard conversations with his black son. He talked about his father’s PTSD, which eventually led to suicide. And he made perhaps the most far-reaching case for government activism outside of Warren — exactly as he wanted.

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► Klobuchar’s one-liners: The overall picture wasn’t a resounding success for her, but a couple of lines landed well, one well-improvised and one clearly planned. When Washington Governor Jay Inslee talked about being the only candidate to sign into law a reproductive rights bill, Klobuchar shot back, ‘‘I just want to say that there are three women here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.’’ The audience erupted in applause. Then later, while talking about Iran, Klobuchar had maybe the line of the night on President Trump: ‘‘I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at 5 o’clock in the morning.’’

► Spanish: It was probably inevitable that some candidates would speak it on the stage, and O’Rourke was quick to do so, followed by Booker. Even Castro, whose lack of fluency in Spanish as the only Latino candidate has been much discussed, offered a brief bit of bilingualism.

LOSERS

► O’Rourke: Off the bat, he was asked a question about marginal tax rates and declined to offer a specific answer — instead offering an apparently prerehearsed Spanish monologue — and again he didn’t really answer after being offered a narrower question about a 70 percent tax rate supported by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Later, he was asked why he wasn’t willing to get rid of private health insurance, and he was challenged on it by de Blasio. Rather than offer a forceful defense, he was rescued by former representative John Delaney of Maryland, who offered a much more studied answer.

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► Tulsi Gabbard: Gabbard was lost for much of the debate. That may not have been her fault — she wasn’t asked many questions — but fellow cellar-dwellers Delaney and de Blasio were able to work their way in by piggybacking on others’ answers. Toward the end, Gabbard was asked a question about her past opposition to gay rights, which she has apologized for. Her answer about personal evolution and coming from a socially conservative family was perfectly fine. But then Booker swooped in and argued that she should have also talked about transgender rights, making her answer suddenly seem insufficient.

► Russia and impeachment: The first mention of either of these came more than 100 minutes into the debate. De Blasio said Russia was one of his top issues. Then Delaney was asked about whether a president should be immune from prosecution, and he said it wasn’t really what voters cared about. Then Klobuchar suggested the important issue was election security, not necessarily what to do with Trump. For all the talk about Robert Mueller and impeachment in recent weeks and months, it would have been an easy applause line Wednesday night to bring this up early and often. Somehow, Democrats resisted the urge — in a way House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will surely appreciate.

► Smooth production: Upon returning from the first hour and handing things off to moderators Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie, the NBC News proceedings were marred by a hot mic — somewhere? — and they had to cut to commercial to fix things.

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