Buttigieg, 2020 front-runners avoid attacks: Takeaways from the 5th Democratic debate | TribLIVE.com
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Buttigieg, 2020 front-runners avoid attacks: Takeaways from the 5th Democratic debate

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden listens during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, in Atlanta.
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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden during a commercial break in a Democratic presidential primary debate, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, in Atlanta.

The Democratic presidential debate Wednesday was supposed to be a sharp-elbowed argument about the future of the party and how best to defeat Donald Trump.

Surprisingly, the candidates had other ideas.

In a stark reversal from the tense moments of previous debates, the 10 Democratic White House hopefuls gathered in Atlanta featured few personal attacks or memorable clashes — especially among the primary’s leading contenders. Even when encouraged by the debate moderators, candidates often passed the opportunity to bash their rivals while instead preaching about the country’s need to unify.

Kamala Harris, for example, declined to lay into Pete Buttigieg over his lack of support among African American voters. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders readily acknowledged agreement with each over a question about criminally prosecuting Trump after he leaves office.

Even the ongoing argument about the political feasibility of “Medicare for All,” which has elicited fireworks in previous debates, failed to generate much controversy this time around. One notable exception came when Cory Booker joked that Biden was “high” when he declined to support legalization of marijuana, though the former vice president didn’t return fire.

The more sanguine environment was unexpected, especially with the Iowa caucuses less than three months away in a wide-open race, where no candidate has been able to distinguish his or herself as the clear front-runner. But it might be reflective of the fact that many of the candidates who have opted to sharply criticize their rivals in previous debates, such as Julian Castro or Harris, appeared to lose support afterward from rank-and-file voters more interested in defeating Trump than inter-party squabbles.

“The lesson from Castro going after Biden a few debates ago is in an environment where Democrats want to focus on taking on the threat from Trump, there is not much appetite for attacking other Democrats,” said Doug Gordon, a Democratic strategist. “If other Democrats are going after Pete, it is likely to come from opposition research where they don’t have to put their name and face to it and not on prime time TV.”

Here are McClatchy’s takeaways on the night:

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WHO’S THE FRONT-RUNNER?

Does the Democratic primary have a front-runner anymore? It wasn’t clear during the fifth debate.

In the previous four debates, the race’s perceived top candidate — at first Biden, and later Elizabeth Warren — received the most attention from moderators and their rivals on stage. They were asked the most questions, received the most criticism, and were a top story when the night ended.

Except on Wednesday, no candidate seemed to fit that bill. Buttigieg was asked about his experience and lack of support within the African American community, but his rivals largely avoided using either argument against him. Warren didn’t receive nearly as much criticism about her health care plan as she did during the last debate. Biden rarely engaged with other candidates.

Frequently, candidates such as Amy Klobuchar, Harris, Tulsi Gabbard and even Tom Steyer appeared to temporarily grab the spotlight, underscoring just how open the night’s proceedings were.

Recent polling would seem to support the conclusion that the Democratic primary lacks a clear-cut favorite: Biden leads in national polls, but has slipped considerably in early states such as Iowa. Buttigieg has surged in Iowa but is still an unknown to most of the country. Warren and Sanders have a strong base of support but haven’t yet been able to build a larger coalition of supporters on top of it.

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KLOBUCHAR FINDS HER FOOTING

The play-it-safe front-runners who shunned a fight created an opening for a second-tier candidate to seize the stage light. Enter Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator who filled the void with a punchy pitch for a moderate but serious Democrat with a capacity to deploy a memorable one-liner.

“If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day,” she said, in an answer that showcased her electability and sense of humor.

While avoiding direct contact with her rivals, she cleverly poked at the progressive vision for Medicare for All and free college tuition. “I’m not going to go for things just because they sound good on a bumper sticker and then throw in a free car,” she swiped.

She even easily fielded a question on foreign policy — a topic that tangles up many contenders — with a comprehensive answer that demonstrated confidence to be commander-in-chief.

Though polling in single digits, Klobuchar punched above her standing in Atlanta.

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NEGLECTED ISSUES RAISED AT LAST

Housing costs have become an increasing source of financial strain for Americans around the country, yet until Wednesday night, housing had not come up on the Democratic debate stage.

It wasn’t the only neglected issue that got an airing at the debate. The candidates tackled questions on paid family leave, farm subsidies and voting rights as well.

Steyer, the billionaire philanthropist from California, where the lack of housing is particularly acute, noted that “There is no way to think about inequality without realizing that housing is at the center of it.”

“We’re having a housing crisis on the supply side,” Warren lamented.

Booker tied abortion rights back to voting rights, noting that Georgia’s restrictive new abortion law — now being fought over in court — would not have become law if Democrat Stacey Abrams had not narrowly lost the Georgia governor’s race in 2018, amid accusations of widespread voter suppression.

Harris and Klobuchar, meanwhile, were asked to discuss their proposals to provide paid family leave for parents of new children or people caring for ailing relatives. Andrew Yang chimed in, noting that the United States is one of only two countries in the world who don’t provide paid leave for new mothers. “We need to get off this list as soon as possible.”

The lines of questioning — from an all-female panel of moderators — drew candidates into the nuts and bolts of public policy and away from the black-and-white stances that have prompted the most fireworks in past debates. And it seemed to reinforce the candidates’ own desire to avoid major confrontations.

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