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The big debate story: Elizabeth Warren wasn’t the big story

Democratic presidential hopefuls Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke participate in the first Democratic primary debate in Miami. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

So much for plans.

With Elizabeth Warren positioned in the middle, the stage was set for the Massachusetts senator to solidify the perception that she’s the Democrat who can beat former Vice President Joe Biden in the primary and then President Trump.

While Warren had a strong start, she didn’t dominate the debate, and at times, went strangely silent. Her disappearing act left room for others — most notably Julián Castro, former Housing secretary and former mayor of San Antonio, who stood out as a fresh face and passionate, new voice. Castro dominated the discussion of immigration policy, but also made some key points about income and gender equality. With her folksy, plain-spoken attitude, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota also had some strong moments. When Washington State Governor Jay Inslee started boasting about his abortion rights record, she noted, “There are three women up here who have fought very hard for a woman’s right to choose.”

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey spoke a lot, but said little. In an annoying New York way, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also forced his way into the debate conversation. Why anyone ever envisioned Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman from Texas, as presidential material remains a mystery. The word “pander” comes to mind the minute O’Rourke starts speaking Spanish. And it’s painful to listen to his long–winded, substance-less answers to direct questions. Even more painful: watching John Delaney, another former congressman, trying to insert himself into the debate. How did he make the cut and not Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts?


But the big story of the night was that Warren wasn’t the big story of the night. She went into the night with the wind of a punditry in search of a contender whose name isn’t Biden behind her. Stories of her high school debating prowess were woven into the pre-debate build-up, the better to intimidate her rivals. She’s inching up in the polls, at least to the point of being able to surpass that cranky, old socialist named Bernie Sanders. Her dog, Bailey, is a hit on Twitter.


And she has a plan for everything. The first question she got was whether her plan for the economy is risky, given polling that shows most people think it’s doing well. She answered it with a question: “Who is this economy really working for?” That’s a theme that works well for her. When she was asked if she has a plan to deal with Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, she paused and said with great timing, “I do.” Her plan: For Congress to “reflect the will of the people.” Some might call that wishful thinking.

She had nothing to say about immigration, and held back when others were fighting for a chance to say something about anything. Staying above the fray works for now. But when this field winnows, Warren will have to mix it up with rivals who may bring more than plans to the debate stage.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.