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Democratic debate analysis: Candidates spar over immigration, taxes, climate change and guns

Julián Castro called for reproductive justice. Elizabeth Warren weighed in on children and gun violence. Jay Inslee finally got to talk about climate change. And Democrats as a whole tackled immigration, taxes and economy. Along the way, Times Washington bureau chief David Lauter, columnist Doyle McManus, and political reporters Melanie Mason, Seema Mehta and Noah Bierman followed Night 1 of the debate. Here are eight takeaways from Night 1 of the Democratic debate.
Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke will share center stage Wednesday night at the Democratic Party's first primary debate in Miami. Ten candidates will debate Wednesday, and 10 more will debate Thursday.

Doyle McManus

Final note: This wasn't intended explicitly to be the secondary, preliminary debate -- but with Biden, Sanders and Harris on stage tomorrow, it certainly feels that way. See you tomorrow evening!

Melanie Mason

I thought it was notable that Klobuchar made the most explicit electability pitch at the end -- specifically naming the midwestern states she thinks she can win.

Doyle McManus

Winning Iowa would fix that.

Seema Mehta

She's relatively well-known among Iowa Dems but does anyone know who she is in the rest of the country?

Noah Bierman

It also seems like candidates who are waiting for night two have an advantage in getting to see tonight's round.

David Lauter

As our colleague Chris Megerian notes: You know the one name that never came up? Barack Obama.

Doyle McManus

Good point. If Biden falters, has Klobuchar established herself as the logical next choice for his voters?

David Lauter

And Castro was very forceful in insisting that other candidates take a stand on decriminalizing the border. On the other hand, that's a proposal which doesn't have a huge lot of support beyond immigration activists.

Noah Bierman

Still wondering about Klobuchar who seems to have opportunity. Not sure she grabbed it tonight.

Seema Mehta

Although maybe it's easier to debate someone you completely disagree with, instead of drawing contrasts with people where you're arguing about different shades of blue.

David Lauter

Castro may have helped himself. Unlike the GOP, this is a party that tends to like candidates who come off as earnest and a bit wonky.

Seema Mehta

Agreed. I was surprised that O'Rourke didn't do better given all the practice he got debating Ted Cruz in the Texas Senate race.

Noah Bierman

Agreed. And De Blasio will remain polarizing though probably more visible.

Doyle McManus

Winners and Losers? I think Warren and Castro did well, Booker too. Beto O'Rourke seemed a bit unfocused.

Seema Mehta

Ryan and De Blasio repeatedly pointed to the problem Dems have in the middle of the country being in part because of their perception as out-of-touch coastal elites.

Noah Bierman

David, I think most of them are just hoping to get a few more people to look at them , rather than achieving a breakout moment, figuring they can build slowly at this point, or at least survive another day.

Doyle McManus

Plus Tim Ryan's striking warning: "We are not connecting to working people."

David Lauter

And, as Noah said, the candidates collectively painted a very different picture of America than the one Trump portrays (and represents), starting with at least three of them speaking in Spanish.

Doyle McManus

A surprisingly substantive debate in this sense: It laid bare the differences between progressive Democrats (which was most of the candidates) and lonely moderates (Klobuchar, Delaney).

David Lauter

The debate illustrated why it's so hard to stand out in a field of 10, let alone a field of two dozen. They each got chances to make their points, but for voters watching who may have been wondering who all these people are, they didn't really get a huge amount to go on.

Seema Mehta

And we did see policy differences on issues like healthcare, which is important for voters who are just starting to pay attention to this enormous field.

Doyle McManus

I don't think Biden and Sanders came up at all. I was a bit surprised that nobody took on Warren, the front-runner in the room, in any explicit way.

Noah Bierman

"We've got 10 more candidates for tomorrow night" sounds like a threat.

Seema Mehta

I agree. I was surprised that there weren't more overt references to Biden and Sanders, the front-runners in the race who we will see during tomorrow night's debate.

Noah Bierman

Seema, I think we learned more about the candidates than I expected, given the large field. And there was some actual back-and-forth without too much shouting.

Noah Bierman

Klobuchar "I don't make all the promises that everyone else up here makes" is an interesting pitch. Sounds humble but implicitly critiquing everyone else as over-promising and pandering.

Seema Mehta

As the candidates make their closing statements, what was the most surprising part of tonight's debate?

Noah Bierman

I'm also surprised Inslee is the only candidate who has made climate a top priority, given its resonance with the base.

Noah Bierman

Taken as a group, Democrats are presenting a far different vision of America than Trump has.

David Lauter

Doyle is exactly right about that. Luckily for Warren, the first hour tends to get the biggest viewership.

Doyle McManus

Yes, the last segment looked as if the moderators were deliberately evening out the time a bit. Is Elizabeth Warren still on the stage?

David Lauter

Gabbard and Ryan had a spirited debate about whether the U.S. should remain engaged in Afghanistan. It might have been more meaningful if candidates with a bit more public support were the ones answering that question.

Doyle McManus

The last two questions -- would you begin impeachment now, and would you prosecute Trump if warranted after he's out of office -- really deserve a show of hands.

Noah Bierman

Any thoughts as we enter the home stretch gang?

Noah Bierman

de Blasio copies Mitt Romney's much-derided 2012 statement (by Democrats) that Russia is America's biggest geo-political threat.

Noah Bierman

Inslee finally throws some anti-Trump red meat but dodges the question.

Doyle McManus

Sounded like Ryan meant diplomatic engagement -- but also no quick withdrawal from places where we have troops, like Afghanistan. Which gave Gabbard her opening to say: "We have to bring our troops back."

Noah Bierman

He seems to have answered my question. He means troops overseas.

Noah Bierman

Is Tim Ryan saying "engaged" to mean involved in foreign conflicts or paying attention?

Melanie Mason

That climate change section was pretty brief, relative to some of the other issues discussed. Expect to hear some grousing about this later -- not just from Inslee, but from activists who have been clamoring for more focus on the issue.

Seema Mehta

Not on this message.

Noah Bierman

Gabbard now getting the air time she wanted. Oops.

Seema Mehta

Ryan is going further on the Democratic party's ills, saying it's viewed as coastal, elite and Ivy League, "we have lost all connection" to working people. Which is basically the foundation of why he thinks he should be the nominee.

Melanie Mason

My sense is he's one of the lower-tier candidates who will come out of this with some buzz. He showed policy fluency and scrappiness with his challenge to Beto.

Noah Bierman

Julián Castro has been getting a lot of time and may get some new attention.

Seema Mehta

Before the debate ends, the Gabbard camp is tweeting that NBC has a finger on the scale: "It's clear who MSNBC wants to be president: Elizabeth Warren. They're giving her more time than all the other candidates combined. They aren't giving any time to Tulsi at all. -V (Tulsi's sister)"

David Lauter

This line of questioning about how to deal with Mitch McConnell is an interesting theoretical question, but, in the end, it's hard to see what it provides to a primary voter. A Democratic president would be better off with 50 votes in the Senate.

Seema Mehta

Inslee finally gets to talk about climate change!

Seema Mehta

De Blasio and Delaney are criticizing the Democratic party -- De Blasio saying it's the party of the elite, not working people, and Delaney saying they need to focus on "real solutions" not "impossible promises."

Melanie Mason

I did not anticipate that Mitch McConnell would get as much airtime in this debate as Donald Trump.

Noah Bierman

When Warren was asked in a 2012 Senate debate to name a Republican senator who she could work with, she could only think of Dick Lugar, who had just lost his primary.

Doyle McManus

And Booker just remembered to mention his gun licensing proposal.

Noah Bierman

Klobuchar is the first one to mention a relative who is a hunter. When I worked in Minnesota, every politician of both parties had to pay homage to the opening day of deer hunting season.

Noah Bierman

Democrats have all moved leftward on this issue in the past decade and don't disagree much in tone. But they will have a big disagreement with Trump who touts himself as the most pro-gun president ever.

Doyle McManus

No! Bet she's holding it in reserve for the right moment.

Melanie Mason

Speaking of which, has Warren actually said "I have a plan for that" tonight?

Doyle McManus

And Booker missed a chance to say "I have a plan for that," because he does: a bill that would require every gun owner to apply for a federal license, a process that would include not only a background check, but also safety training and an interview.

Melanie Mason

Warren's answer on guns was notably vague, talking about treating it like a public health crisis and a research issue. Stands out compared to the policy specificity that's generally been her trademark

Noah Bierman

Trump, who cares deeply about TV, chimes in for only the second time to complain about the poor production values. "@NBCNews and @MSNBC should be ashamed of themselves for having such a horrible technical breakdown in the middle of the debate. Truly unprofessional and only worth of a FAKE NEWS Organization, which they are!"

Doyle McManus

Especially when you're parceling out 120 minutes among 10 candidates. Make that 110 minutes.

Noah Bierman

Wow. After all the hype, MSNBC can't get the technical aspects to work. Sad!

Seema Mehta

They are having some major audio problems.

Seema Mehta

That was only the third question for Gabbard -- it does seem like there are some notable discrepancies in how much time each candidate is getting to speak.

Doyle McManus

On Iran, Booker did take a more hawkish stance in the nuance: He said he would use "leverage" against Iran to get a tougher agreement before rejoining the 2015 pact. To some, that will sound a little ... Trumpian.

David Lauter

De Blasio interrupted by a commercial could be a perfect metaphor for his anti-corporate stand. But he probably won't use that.

Melanie Mason

Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, won't let the lack of questions directed at him hold him back

Melanie Mason

After claiming a lot of time at the outset, Warren has been largely absent during this segment.

Noah Bierman

Booker pulls a neat trick -- not raising his hand to stand out but essentially agreeing with everyone else.

Doyle McManus

One modest surprise: Relatively few mentions of President Trump. The competition here is over core elements of the Democratic agenda -- healthcare, immigration, a green economy -- and between progressives and moderates.

Noah Bierman

Warren has not spoken but also agrees with Castro.

David Lauter

So far, O'Rourke and Klobuchar have not agreed with Castro on decriminalization of border crossing. Booker and Ryan are on Castro's side.

Seema Mehta

Ryan has not gotten a lot of attention but he had two really strong answers tonight -- re Ohio/GM and about the horrific conditions migrant children are being housed in at the border.

Seema Mehta

Wow, Castro just went after his fellow Texan O'Rourke hard on immigration.

Melanie Mason

This is some serious flexing between the two Texas candidates to prove who knows more about immigration law.

David Lauter

Julián Castro creates the first actual dispute among the candidates, pressing O'Rourke to sign onto his proposal to decriminalize border crossing and make it a civil violation once again.

Noah Bierman

"The immigrants didn't do that to you. The big corporations did that to you" -- De Blasio just crystallized the difference between Trumpian populism and left-wing populism.

Seema Mehta

This immigration discussion goes back to what we were talking about earlier -- proposing solutions for the people who are in the country illegally as well migrants while also emphasizing security.

Noah Bierman

Remember when Donald Trump berated fellow Republicans for speaking Spanish in the 2016 primaries -- another major contrast in where the parties are going.

Seema Mehta

Booker also breaks into Spanish. I wonder how many languages Mayor Pete will speak tomorrow night.

Seema Mehta

This immigration question is a soft-pitch to Castro, who was the first Democratic candidate out with an immigration plan.

Noah Bierman

Trump has just issued his first tweet: "BORING!"

Doyle McManus

Warren is standing out in part because she's been recognized more often by the moderators. She's spoken six times; nobody else has held the stage more than three times. That's good television, and perhaps reasonably given the imbalance in the polls--but let's see if any of the other candidates complain about the refs.

David Lauter

It's not that many years ago that Democratic candidates anxiously ducked questions about public funding of abortions. You can clearly see how much the party has moved to the left on that issue by the way candidates like O'Rourke and Castro emphasize their support for reproductive rights.

Seema Mehta

Castro's line about reproductive justice got a big response from the crowd.

Melanie Mason

So what are our thoughts in this first break? I agree with Seema that Warren has stood out, but I'm struck by Castro's polished answers on issues that are dear to progressives, like reproductive rights

Melanie Mason

That conversation on abortion rights crept right up to (but didn't actually touch on) the Hyde Amendment, which bars use of federal dollars for abortion. That was a big kerfuffle with Biden but no one invoked him.

Noah Bierman

Warren so far living up to the top-tier status -- standing out in the crowd.

Noah Bierman

President Trump just told reporters on Air Force One: “I think they all are going to do very poorly.”

Noah Bierman

Cory Booker making sure that several of his answers include the fact that he lives in a low-income community.

Seema Mehta

It should be noted that both De Blasio and Delaney are polling at under 1% so they need to get some attention.

Melanie Mason

De Blasio clearly is taking the role of the on-stage brawler tonight.

Doyle McManus

And Delaney jumps in -- proving that disruption is a good strategy

Noah Bierman

A real debate is now breaking out.

Seema Mehta

Bill de Blasio is the first to go after one of his rivals, hammering O'Rourke on his plan to keep private health insurance.

Melanie Mason

Beto O'Rourke by contrast is talking about a "Medicare for those who want it" model.

Melanie Mason

Here's the thing about the Medicare for All debate -- polls show that most voters don't know exactly what that means. Many Democrats have indicated they believe a Medicare for All plan would allow them to keep their employer-based insurance if they like it. That's not the case under Sen. Sanders' bill.

Noah Bierman

David, she's also running up quite a tab. She just said she would spend 10 times more in government money on green technology. Does it matter?

Melanie Mason

Warren and De Blasio raise hands for abolishing private health insurance and implementing government-run healthcare

David Lauter

What Warren succeeds in doing, which the others have more trouble with, is to connect her specific policies to a more general theme. The question with her is whether everyone will buy into her theme.

Melanie Mason

Show of hands! My favorite kind of question


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