If the first debate meeting between former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren was supposed to be a dramatic, head-to-head showdown, it hardly materialized.
But Warren could benefit from that anyway.
Biden entered the presidential debate on Thursday night in Houston as the front-runner in the Democratic primary, with Warren rising in the polls to become one of his more fearsome rivals. In the opening moments, Biden took a shot at pumping up his Obama-era centrism at the expense of her lefty liberalism, seeking to contrast her support for Medicare for All — a plan devised by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders — with his own proposal to expand the Affordable Care Act with a public option.
“The senator says she’s for Bernie, well I’m for Barack,” Biden said, before accusing Warren of failing to explain how she would pay for the massive expansion of government financing for health care.
But Warren hardly took the bait.
Rather than hitting back directly at Biden, she praised Obama and then launched into a spirited defense of Sanders’ plan. The answer set the tone for a night in which it was Warren, the ascendant Democrat, who sought to hover above the fray — although, at times, out of the spotlight — crisply defending her ideas while Biden tangled with his opponents . He frequently had to defend himself even as he sought to raise questions about whether the ideas of his liberal rivals are realistic.
For Warren, the debate was a new test at the end of a long, bright summer in which her most significant opponents largely refrained from trying to puncture her grand vision for change. The debate showcased her strategy of purposely staying out of the fractious muck. But if there is any issue that will drag her into it, Medicare for All is the one, now that she has committed herself to forcefully defending an idea that is deeply vulnerable to criticism from moderate Democrats.
It was the third debate of the presidential primary and the first time the stage was limited to only 10 candidates. That hardly made the debate any less feisty or chaotic than the previous two rounds, which left political observers and voters worried that intraparty acrimony could distract Democrats from their ultimate goal of defeating President Trump.
But Biden, who has led the polls since he entered the race in April, made for a more beguiling target to the other candidates onstage than Warren, who was unscathed as they laid into him for his record and even his age. As Biden tied himself as tightly as ever to President Obama and jabbed at some of his rivals, Warren signalled that the policy-focused strategy that has buoyed her presidential campaign is unlikely to change, and that she is betting she can let other candidates fight it out while she sells her ideas.
As the debate unfolded over nearly three hours, the winnowed field presented a concentrated clash over the fundamental question in the Democratic primary: Do voters want a candidate who is offering to right the ship and “restore” the nation after four years of Trump, as Biden does, or someone pushing for a more fundamental transformation of American society?
Warren used her time to argue for that transformation, and even showed rare daylight between herself and Sanders when she called for the elimination of the Senate filibuster in an effort to pass new gun control laws.
“Until we attack the systemic problems, we can’t get gun reform in this country,” Warren said, moments before Sanders said he did not support eliminating the filibuster.
The debate offered possible previews of future lines of attack against her, particularly as other moderate candidates tried subtly to suggest that her ideas were too liberal.
“You’re going to hear a lot of ideas up here,” said Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, in what may have been a veiled reference to Warren and Sanders’ big ideas. “Some will be great. But if you see that some of them seem a little off-track, I’ve got a better way.”
Warren stayed quiet as the debate about health care turned messy, leaving Biden and other candidates shouting over each other -- which risked drowning out the vice president’s message of a moderate expansion of the health care system.
He sought to attack Sanders — “For a socialist, you’ve got a lot more faith in corporate America than I do,” Biden said — and said the worst diseases, like cancer, were personal to him. Moments later, former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro went on the attack, accusing him of forgetting a detail about how people would get enrolled in his plan.
“Are you forgetting what you just said onstage two minutes ago?” Castro said, an apparent dig at Biden’s advanced age — he is 76 — and well-documented tendency to misspeak and mix up his words. The comment drew some boos from the audience.
But Warren’s strategy of focusing solely on her ideas, and not engaging with other candidates, comes with a risk. She dodged questions about whether Medicare for All would require raising taxes on the middle class — a question Sanders has previously answered in the affirmative — and her caution onstage limited her speaking time, keeping her out of the spotlight as other candidates tried to grab the moment for themselves.
California Senator Kamala Harris, for example, used the fighting that erupted around her as an opportunity to cast herself as a unifying candidate who could simply beat Trump. As her rivals bickered over their personal flavors of health care reform, Harris interjected, trying to put the focus back on Trump.
“This discussion has given the American people a headache,” she said. “But let’s focus on the end goal. If we don’t get Donald Trump out of office he’s going to get rid of all of it.”
At times, Biden struggled to make his case — an occurrence that underscored the delicate nature of his front-runner status, and the hunger for other candidates to capitalize on his implosion if it comes.
At one point, for example, Biden was asked about a statement he made 40 years ago about reparations for slavery. At the time he said, “I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”
In a rambling answer, the former vice president began to speak about his work to curb institutional segregation, but ended by talking about a record player, saying people should have it on at night so poor children can learn new words.
“Play the radio, make sure the television, excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the, make sure that kids hear words, a kid coming from a very poor school, a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time we get there,” Biden said.
When the moderators tried to cut him off, Biden interrupted them. “I’m going to go like the rest of them do — twice over,” he said.
Moments like that could boost candidates such as Warren.
But as her stock rises, she may face more scrutiny for controversial ideas — like when she told the debate moderator she was willing to pull troops out of Afghanistan without a deal.
“What we are doing right now in Afghanistan is not helping the safety and security of the United States and it’s not helping the safety and security of the world, it’s not helping the safety and security of Afghanistan,” she said, evoking her three brothers’ military service.
“We cannot ask our military to keep solving problems that cannot be solved militarily,” she said.
Laura Krantz of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@jessbidgood