Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
In the absence of frontrunner Joe Biden, the first night of the second round of Democratic presidential debates on Tuesday saw former Rep. John Delaney, who is polling at less than 1%, assume the unlikely role of moderate foil to progressive heavyweights Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
The big picture: CNN moderators largely (and predictably) framed the debate as whether Democrats are drifting too far to the left with policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal proposal and free college tuition. Those that expected Warren and Sanders to turn on one another were likely disappointed — the pair spent most of the night tag teaming moderates like Delaney, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Rep. Tim Ryan, urging them to dream big on policy and "stop using Republican talking points."
The first 40 or so minutes of Tuesday's debate saw candidates engage in a substantive, at times fiery debate over health care policy and the political implications of Medicare for All. Delaney used his opening statement to attack Sanders' signature health care plan as "bad policy," arguing for a form of universal health care that would not eliminate private insurance. Given a chance to respond, Sanders said flatly: "You're wrong."
- Sanders later hit back at Ryan for suggesting that Sanders couldn't know whether Medicare for All would guarantee benefits as good as the ones union workers fought to negotiate, quipping: "I do know, I wrote the damn bill!" His campaign is already selling merchandise with the crowd-pleasing one-liner.
On immigration, the question raised during the last debates by Julián Castro over whether to decriminalize the border was once again a point of contention. Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who was seeking to reset his campaign after a poor debate performance last month, stood by his refusal to decriminalize the border, despite the policy earning support from a broad array of candidates including Castro, Sanders, Warren, Sen. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and others.
- The candidates overall showed far more unity on the question of immigration than they did on health care, though there was a clear divide over whether decriminalizing the border and offering free health care to undocumented immigrants would encourage illegal border crossings. Ryan summed up the position of most moderates on stage with the line: "If you want to come into the country, you should at least ring the doorbell."
Mayor Pete Buttigieg's debate preparedness shone through on Tuesday, as he rehashed one of his favorite campaign talking points urging Democrats to ignore Trump's "crazy socialist" attacks.
- The 37-year-old gay veteran quoted scripture to condemn Republicans for their "moral hypocrisy," pledged to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan in his first year in office and declined an opportunity from moderator Don Lemon to attack Bernie Sanders over his age — turning in an all-around strong performance.
Author Marianne Williamson, a long-shot candidate who found herself on the receiving end of many Twitter jokes after her first debate performance, earned perhaps the loudest audience reaction of the night with her answers on how to heal the country's racial divides and combat President Trump's divisive rhetoric.
- On Flint, Michigan, Williamson argued: "This is part of the dark underbelly of American society. The racism, the bigotry and the entire conversation that we're having here tonight, if you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I'm afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days."
- Williamson was the most Googled candidate in every state except Montana, where Bullock ranked No. 1, according to Google Trends.
What's next: The second night of debates, featuring a Joe Biden vs. Kamala Harris rematch, will kick off Wednesday night on CNN, CNN en Español and CNN International at 8 p.m. ET.
- Other candidates debating include Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
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Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that the next debate is Wednesday, not Thursday.