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5 takeaways from Ohio's Democratic presidential debate

Democratic debate
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

12 candidates took the stage for Tuesday night's Democratic debate in Ohio, hosted by CNN and the New York Times in a state that every winning presidential candidate has carried since 1960.

The big picture: This was the first debate since Sen. Elizabeth Warren briefly overtook Joe Biden in the national RealClearPolitics average of polls, assuming an invigorated frontrunner status that was met with attacks from nearly every candidate. With the backdrop of an intensifying impeachment investigation and a Turkish military incursion that has set off bipartisan condemnation, the candidates clashed on health care, foreign policy, Big Tech, income inequality and more.

5 highlights

The previous three debates started with substantive, policy-centric discussions on the health care fissures that divide the Democratic Party. Tonight, the first 2 questions centered around the impeachment inquiry, something that all 12 candidates have endorsed.

  • Nearly every candidate attacked Trump head on, with Sanders calling him the most corrupt president in modern history, Sen. Kamala Harris accusing him of committing crimes "in plain sight," and Sen. Amy Klobuchar denouncing his Syria and Ukraine policies for "making Russia great again."
  • Biden was asked about the controversy over his son accepting a position on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while Biden was vice president. The former vice president largely deflected, but Sen. Cory Booker came to his defense, cutting off the potential for an intra-party attack over the alleged conflict of interest: "We are literally using Donald Trump's lies and the second issue we cover on this stage is elevating a lie and attacking a statesman."

Warren racked up the most speaking time out of any candidate, a byproduct of the onslaught of attacks she faced. With an opportunity to expound on policy details, Warren was explicitly pressed for the 4th straight debate on whether Medicare for All would result in higher taxes for the middle class, which she predictably deflected into an answer about lower total costs.

  • Warren didn't escape completely unscathed, but the sheer number of punches she took simply underscores the fact that she's now viewed as a frontrunner.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg, as Axios previewed Tuesday, came out swinging against Sanders and Warren, following up on a new digital ad that directly calls out the two progressives for their support of Medicare for All. With an eye-popping $19.1 million raised in Q3, Buttigieg's aggressive approach and appeal for moral practicality is likely a bid to siphon off moderate support from a battered Joe Biden.

  • Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke also squared off in a quite personal exchange over mandatory gun buybacks. One trend to watch in future polling is whether Democratic voters have an appetite for these kinds of negative attacks.

Candidates were asked to respond to Trump's decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, which they almost universally condemned. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Buttigieg, the only military veterans in the field, sparred over military policy, with Gabbard claiming that the slaughter of U.S.-allied Kurdish forces is a result of "the regime change war that we’ve been raging in Syria."

  • Buttigieg said she was "dead wrong," arguing the assault is "not a consequence of American presence," but "a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values."
  • Other highlights: Sanders claimed Turkey is not a U.S. ally, despite being a part of NATO, while Biden defended the Obama administration's Syria policy as not being about regime change: "It was to make sure the regime did not wipe out hundreds of thousands of innocent people."

In his first debate appearance since suffering a heart attack, Sen. Bernie Sanders exuded his usual high energy and was in good spirits, cracking jokes and thanking the candidates for their well wishes while he was recovering. But his age is still a legitimate concern, with 43% of Democrats in early voting states believing that the 78-year-old Sanders is "too old to serve effectively as president," according to a recent CBS News poll.

  • Perhaps in a bid to help quell those fears, the Washington Post scooped with minutes left in the debate that freshman Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be endorsing Sanders over Warren at a rally in New York on Saturday.

The bottom line, via Axios' Alexi McCammond: Some of the middle-tier candidates, like Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Booker, had big moments. But debates don't make a frontrunner. It's things like the anatomy of a Warren rally; the familiarity of Biden and his proximity to Barack Obama; and Sanders' 2016 holdovers and party-shaping policies that make them all frontrunners.