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Democratic debate: the five key takeaways

Biden was Biden but despite a smaller field sparks failed to fly with Warren, while O’Rourke had a good night – as did Obama

Democratic debate: the five key takeaways
Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren at the third 2020 Democratic party presidential debate in Houston. Photograph: Brian Cahn/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

The Democratic debate in Houston was a mix of smackdown, backslapping and policy gab-fest as the 10 top-tier candidates faced off against each other while at least 10 others were only able to watch from the sidelines, having failed to qualify.

Biden clashes with Warren and Sanders in lively Democratic debate

Over almost three hours of verbal sparring the rivals for the Democratic nomination and the right to try to wrest the White House away from Donald Trump battled each other on a range of issues from healthcare to gun rights to the climate crisis.

It was a long night that frequently dove into the weeds of candidates’ specific proposals with a couple of explosive moments thrown in along the way.

Here are five of the night’s key takeaways:

Joe Biden was solid(ish) if uninspired

Joe Bidenturned in an overall solid performance that was a far cry from his disastrous first debate. But the former vice-president’s reference to a “record player” prompted, along with many Twitter jokes, yet another moment of: “What is he talking about?” The debate’s most divisive moment came when the ex-Obama cabinet official Julián Castroaccused Biden of flip-flopping on healthcare by repeatedly asking him: “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” The question elicited gasps from the audience and brought to mind Biden’s repeated gaffes in recent weeks. He has, for example, mixed up the locations of recent mass shootings and misidentified the state he was campaigning in. (Though it later appeared Castro had mischaracterized Biden’s original comments.)

Warren v Biden: never really happened

The biggest question going into Houston was whether Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who were meeting on a debate stage for the first time, would go after each other. The answer turned out to be: not so much. With the exception of Biden’s fumbled reference to “the senator to my left” at the beginning of the debate, the pair focused on defending their proposals more than anything else. Meanwhile, the other top-polling progressive candidate, the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders,inserted himself into many of the night’s most policy-driven discussions on healthcare and foreign policy, though he was hampered by a raspy voice caused by a cold.

A narrowed field improves debate

The narrowed debate field undeniably changed the dynamics of the event as so many of the also-rans were denied the oxygen of publicity their campaigns desperately need. Without the 10 additional minor candidates spread across two nights, there appeared to be fewer desperate attempts for attention and more calls to unify as one Democratic field and not attack each other. Though that suggestion didn’t sit well with the sharp-elbowed Castro, who told the South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg at one point: “That’s called an election.”

Beto breaks out

Of the lower-polling candidates, the former Texas congresswoman Beto O’Rourke appeared to have the most standout moments. His answers about gun control, coming just a month after the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, attracted enthusiastic applause from the audience, and O’Rourke’s campaign said it had the best hour of fundraising this quarter during the debate.

Obama wins debate?

One clear winner of tonight’s debate: Barack Obama. Candidates such as California senator Kamala Harris and Castro started several answers by applauding the work done by the former president’s administration – which was quite a contrast from the second debate, after which Biden complained that some of his opponents were disparaging Obama’s legacy.

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