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SCOT LEHIGH

Winners and losers from the first Democratic debate

Democratic presidential hopefuls take to the stage in Miami for the first debate.
Democratic presidential hopefuls take to the stage in Miami for the first debate. Drew Angerer/Getty Images/Getty Images

If I had to pick one winner from last night, I’d say it was Amy Klobuchar. She was crisp, smart, and confident, carving out and expanding her space as a thoughtful moderate in a left-leaning field. The Minnesota senator did particularly well in explaining why she favored adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act, but not moving to a single-payer system.

The worst? New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. He repeatedly tried to create a debate moment, but it was clumsily done, with affected anger and annoying interruptions. And, sometimes, with an odd near-snarl contorting his countenance.

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In one of those moments, de Blasio started to give Beto O’Rourke a high-handed lecture because the former Texas congressman doesn’t support eliminating health insurance companies, only to have former Maryland congressman John Delaney, a more adept interrupter, cut short his manufactured thunder to say that Democrats shouldn’t take away health care plans from those content with their employer-provided plans.

“We should be the party that keeps what’s working and fixes what’s broken,” he said.

Klobuchar then made a strong political-policy argument for her pragmatic plan to strengthen the Affordable Care Act by adding a public option, while keeping private plans for those who like them.

“I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America off of their health insurance in four years,” she said. As all the Democrats should be, politically; that’s why single-payer fairly leans into a Republican right hook. It was just one of several strong moments for Klobuchar. She stumbled early on in this campaign over charges that she has been a toxic boss, but her smart and affable performance Wednesday night should win her renewed attention.

Contrariwise, O’Rourke, who attracted a lot of early campaign attention, seemed not quite ready for prime time. That was particularly true when former HUD Secretary Julián Castro challenged his fellow Texan on immigration. O’Rourke has a comprehensive immigration plan of his own, but did not do well at either answering or parrying Castro’s challenge about decriminalizing the unauthorized crossing of migrants at the US border. In a week when the nation has been shocked by a harrowing photograph of father and daughter drowned while crossing the Rio Grande, Castro turned in a bolder, more authoritative performance on an issue both have tried to make their own.

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Put Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker in the category of uneven overall, but with some standout moments. The Massachusetts senator commanded center stage early on, and effectively underscored her populist stands, contending the economy was only working for a thin slice at the top and declared she would continue going after “the monopolists.” She was also good when she noted, sardonically, that the United States has had an industrial policy for the last few decades: “Let giant corporations do whatever they want to do.” She then added that if she were president, companies would only have access to government-sponsored green-energy research if they agreed to build their products in this country.

On health care, Warren abandoned her strategic ambiguity about a Bernie Sanders-esque single-payer system, coming down hard for it. “I understand, there are a lot of politicians who say it’s just not possible, we can’t do it, we have a lot of political reasons for this,” she said. “They are really telling you they won’t fight for it.”

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That, however, raises two questions: Why, then, is her own recent health care proposal all about strengthening the Affordable Care Act and not about moving to single-payer? And how would she pay for an expensive single payer system? For a candidate who had impressive details about most everything else, expect that question to loom.

Booker, who started nervously, but grew better as the night went on, had a particularly strong moment on gun violence. Speaking about living in a city — Newark — where one can regularly hear gun shots, he called for requiring a license to own a gun. That was as forthright, bold, and different as anything said during the debate.

A final thought: This debate was replete with snafus, from the strange moire effect created by the backdrop to audio glitches and momentarily blank screens. C’mon, NBC, get your act together.


Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.