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Scorecard: Grading the debate performance of the Democratic candidates

Democratic hopefuls take aim at Elizabeth Warren in Ohio debate
Sen. Elizabeth Warren repeatedly came under attack during Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate. (The Boston Globe)

It was the biggest presidential debate ever. All eyes weren’t on the 12 Democratic White House hopefuls on the Ohio stage, but rather focused on the front runners.

Senator Elizabeth Warren came into Tuesday’s CNN/New York Times event leading in national and early state polls consistently for the first time.

Former vice president Joe Biden was under pressure from President Trump over his son Hunter’s business dealings in China and Ukraine.

And Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont was making one of his first campaign appearances since suffering a heart attack two weeks ago.

Once the cameras turned on and the three hour debate began, it was fiery, especially when it came to health care and foreign policy.


These grades are based on how each candidate did, including the substance and resonance of their responses, as well as whether they accomplished what they needed in the context of their campaigns. For example, success for Warren was different than success for Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who is among the candidates struggling to make the cut-off for next month’s debate.

Here’s the scorecard for Tuesday:

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.

Grade: A

This was the single best moment of Buttigieg’s campaign for president. He did well on guns, on impeachment, and particularly on Syria.

Buttigieg had been making the argument that he is the centrist where moderate Democrats can go if Biden fails. That came through Tuesday night.

In this debate, he added a new layer to his national brand: outsider. He kept referring to how he was from “the industrial Midwest” and how Washington had not solved the problems facing a wide swath of the United States.

Buttigieg won the debate.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts

Grade: B+

This was a great debate for Warren, the new frontrunner. Most of the other candidates on the stage tried to call her out, and engage her in a back-and-forth. She deftly handled just about all of them.


It seemed like no one came after Biden. Think about that.

But not all her answers were great, and she was too clever by half trying to avoid answering how she would pay for Medicare for All.

Still, it was a big moment for Warren and her campaign.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota

Grade: B+

Klobuchar had the second best performance of the evening. Her campaign is very close to the end, and she came out fighting.

She gave strong answers that highlighted why she is running and why she is unique — the voice of the practical person from, as she said, “flyover country.” And Klobuchar was able, from the very beginning, to get other candidates to engage with her. She had a good performance, she did exactly what she needed to do in the context of the campaign. Will it be good enough to get her into the next debate? Possibly.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont

Grade: B

Let’s get the health stuff out of the way: Two weeks after a heart attack, he looked and sounded like the same Bernie Sanders as before. Sanders didn’t do a lot to expand support, but in the context of the campaign, it was an important night. Over the course of a very intense three-hour debate, he did hold his own

He can score points at the next debate.


Entrepreneur Andrew Yang

Grade: B

This was Yang’s best debate all year. He smartly pivoted from the opening question about impeachment to make his campaign pitch about the state of the economy and push for a universal basic income.

Indeed, he offered solid answers all night, except for a moment where he equated Russian interference in the 2016 American elections with past actions from the United States government, hinting at covert CIA activity during the Cold War. This answer was quickly shot down by Klobuchar, who claimed there was no equating Putin to the United States.

There are only three candidates who could go up in the polls after this debate: Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Yang.

Former vice president Joe Biden

Grade: C+

Biden is slipping in polls, slipping in fund-raising, and on the ropes when it comes to the questions about him and his son that the impeachment process has brought about. On paper, Biden is a co-frontrunner with Warren. On this debate stage, Biden was often forgotten.

He did little to help his cause or make the case he is the inevitable nominee.

One famous Biden-ism is that in politics you are either on the way up or the way down. With this debate, Biden is still on the way down.

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey

Grade: C-

Booker’s cheesy refrain that he is worried “about how we are talking about each other” in, you know, a debate — a debate! — seemed pointless. Then again, in October 2019, what is the point of Booker’s candidacy? Why him over anyone else in the field? What is driving his campaign? He has openly talked about the prospect of dropping out. He didn’t help himself with this performance.


Senator Kamala Harris of California

Grade: D+

It is hard to express how bad this debate was for Harris. In four months, she went from top-tier candidate to now hanging out with third- or fourth-tier. For a big chunk of the debate, she was just totally forgotten.

Former representative Beto O’Rourke

Grade: D

Give O’Rourke credit: he knows he is on the ropes. After entering the presidential race “born to do this” and jumping on tables, giving speeches live on cable news, O’Rourke now knows he has to throw proverbial spaghetti against the wall and hope against hope that something sticks. He tried to inject himself into the conversation as much as possible. But he lost pretty much every skirmish, particularly against Buttigieg on guns.

Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii

Grade: D

On one level, when there are a dozen candidates the stage, each candidate needs to figure out how they, in particular, can come across as unique. Gabbard did do that, particularly on foreign policy. She stood alone calling for the United States to end a bipartisan policy seeking the removal of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader who has gassed to death his own people, including children.

On all other policy topics, she didn’t really stand out. And given that she hasn’t qualified for the next debate, she didn’t really help herself.


Businessman Tom Steyer

Grade: D

It must be a wild experience to have never been in a single televised campaign debate, even for Congress, and then jump in to a presidential debate. It was clear that he smartly tried to pick his moments. Still, he couldn’t define who he was or what his campaign was about — except for some broad statement about corporate corruption that doesn’t stand out from the rest of the field.

Despite his meh performance, Steyer has qualified for the next debate by using his wallet on ads. (He clearly isn’t spending his fortune on ties.)

Former housing and urban development secretary Julian Castro

Grade: D

Quick: Can you remember a single thing that Castro said tonight? No? That’s probably why this will be his last debate as a 2020 Democratic presidential campaign. Castro didn’t get a worse grade because he didn’t totally disqualify his political future.


The next debate in November is expected to have fewer candidates on the stage, and possibly fewer candidates running altogether. There are currently 19 candidates running. Just eight have qualified for the next debate, which will be held in Georgia.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp