Democratic debate: Who were the winners and losers

Savannah Behrmann and Rebecca Morin, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON -- One night. Ten Democrats. Another chance to try to get ahead in the crowded Democratic presidential primary field.

Here's an early take on how they did:

Winners

The voters

In a sprawling field of 20, viewers of Thurday night's debate only had to focus on 10 -- cutting the field in half at least for a single night's three hours of live television.

Ten of the Democratic contenders qualified for the debate. With the fundraising and polling criteria doubled from the two previous debates, the change gave voters the opportunity to observe the candidates with the highest polling and sufficient fundraising under the DNC's rules on one stage, all together.

The gun debate, especially Beto O'Rourke

The Democratic candidates passionately discussed their views on the best way to respond to gun violence in the country and offered various points of view and solutions. 

This issue was among the most important for voters leading into the debate following multiple mass shootings this summer

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota discussed the need to close the “boyfriend loophole,” and keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. Klobuchar also called out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for the Senate's inaction on gun control, saying that “We have to send a message to Mitch McConnell, we can't wait until one of us gets in the White House.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont bragged about his F rating from the NRA and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said ”We have a Congress that is beholden to the gun industry." 

On the president’s influence and the El Paso shooting that was apparently motivated by anti-immigrant views, Sen. Kamala Harris of California said Donald Trump “didn’t pull the trigger, but he’s certainly been tweeting out the ammunition.” 

What happened in the debate: Democratic debate featured frontrunners who battled each other, attacked Trump

But former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke was perhaps the strongest candidate on the issue of gun violence and was praised by nearly every other candidate on stage for his response after the El Paso mass shooting. 

O'Rourke: 'Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47' to keep children safe

Of O’Rourke, frontrunner Joe Biden said: "The way he handled what happened in his hometown is meaningful. To look in the eyes of those people, to see those kids, to understand those parents, to understand the heartache.”

In on his best moments of the night, when arguing for a mandatory buyback of assault weapons, O’Rourke declared, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47," as the crowd erupted. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”

Time spent on health care

Health care has consistently emerged a top concern of Democratic voters.

Though the candidates sparred and differed in their opinions on health care, a significant amount of time was spent on the topic at the beginning of the nearly three-hour broadcast -- a nod to how important the issue is to Democrats and the country. 

The candidates spent over 40 minutes discussing the issue at the beginning of the debate.

And though their views varied, the candidates came to the consensus that all Americans deserve coverage, and Trump isn’t delivering. 

"Let's focus on the end goal. If we don't get Donald Trump out of office, he's going to get rid of all of it," Harris declared.

Thursday night displayed that the Democratic candidates want to go further than the current system in providing health insurance coverage for all Americans but disagree about allowing people to buy in to Medicare -- and whether to keep private insurance or to get rid of private coverage altogether. 

“There's something fundamentally wrong when one of the richest and most powerful countries can't make sure a person can afford to see a doctor,” Warren said.

The three frontrunners -- Biden, Sanders, and Warren -- had a particularly lengthy clash over the issue, which suggested a longer-term debate within the Democratic Party over health care policy.

Andrew Yang

The entrepreneur, who started off running a longshot bid but who made the cut for the latest debate stage, has improved over the course of the debates this year.

Despite announcing he was expanding his “freedom dividend” by giving 10 American families $1,000 a month for an entire year, Yang moved away from being a Johnny One-Note focused solely on trademark policy of universal basic income.

More: Andrew Yang reveals his debate surprise – $1,000 a month for 10 more families

He had some standout moments that resonated with the debate hall audience, like when Yang said that his “father grew up on a peanut farm in Asia with no floor and now his son is running for president.” 

Yang was the only one Democratic candidate on stage Thrusday that didn't previously have a career in politics, and he used that to his advantage.

He made some serious points about creating an economy that optimizes the health and happiness of the American public -- and emphasized the point by mentioning his past as an entrepreneur and businessman. 

"We have to see ourselves as the owners and shareholders of this democracy rather than inputs into a giant machine," he said.

Positive comments about Yang were also trending on Twitter during most of the broadcast, powered perhaps by his loyal followers, the "Yang Gang."

Losers

The other Democratic contenders who weren't on stage

Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls were left off the debate stage Thursday night, a big blow to those 10 at a time when standing out and advancing in the crowded field is critical. Standout moments on the debate stage could lead to a jump in polling, like Sen. Kamala Harris experienced after June's debate, or an influx of contributions coming into campaign coffers.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and author Marianne Williamson — the two candidates who dominated search results during the past debates — were two of the several that were absent from the stage. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, billionaire Tom Steyer and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock are currently campaigning in Iowa, having not made the cut to participate on Thursday night.

For the next debate in October, in addition to the 10 on stage Thursday night, Steyer is the only other candidate so far to qualify.

The lack of face time with a national audience could spell trouble for the candidates who weren't on stage Thursday.

Julián Castro

Castro was on his home state turf, a factor that should have helped him in the debate.

But Castro's strategy seemed to be to repeatedly go after former Vice President Joe Biden, who served in the Obama administration with Castro when Castro was HUD secretary.  

Castro attempted to ding Biden on his health care plan, claiming that the former vice president said Americans would have to "buy in" for health care coverage under Biden's proposal. When Biden denied it, Castro replied: "You just said two minutes ago that they would have to buy in." 

More: Castro appears to misrepresent Biden's health care plan during debate

Biden earlier had said: "Anyone who can't afford it gets automatically enrolled in the Medicare-type option we have." He said several minutes later that under his health care plan, if Americans lose their insurance, "you automatically can buy into this."

But Castro's criticism didn't land well with the audience in the Houston debate hall, nor with pundits online. Castro also criticized Biden for his references to former President Barack Obama throughout the primary campaign.

It's too early to know if the attacks on Biden, the current frontrunner, might hurt Castro in the long term but the initial reaction Thursday night suggested Castro's strategy might have been ill-advised. 

Kamala Harris

Harris' standing in the Democratic field appears to have plateaued, suggesting an end to the momentum she received after the first debate back in June.  And Thursday night did not seem to help her regain that momentum.

After the first debate in June, Harris received a bump and rose to be considered one of the top-tier candidates. However, the margin in polls between her and Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren has continued to widen over the past couple of months.

Harris had some quippy remarks, but struggled to create an organic moment like she had in the first debate where she took Biden to task about his stance on federally mandated busing. A moderator was cheered by audience members when a question was posed to Harris about her controversial record as a prosecutor, something that Harris has received criticism about from liberal activists working on criminal justice issues.

Overall, Harris needed to have a standout moment or land a rhetorical blow on one of the frontrunners and she did not do so.

Top moments: Kamala Harris calls Trump a 'little dude' and other moments from the Democratic debate

Reproductive rights

During the nearly three-hour broadcast the issue of reproductive rights did not come up, with not one question being asked about it.

The omission happened in the shadow of a number of Republican-leaning states’ recently passing restrictive abortion laws which have raised alarm among progressives.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who recently ended her presidential bid, made reproductive rights one of her key platforms and would often bring it up while campaigning and on the debate stage. However, with her out of the primary race, it seems like this issue is too. Harris and O’Rourke, however, tweeted after the debate that no questions on abortion rights were asked.

Texas would have also been an important state to talk about abortion rights after the role it played in a landmark 2016 Supreme Court case, which blocked restrictions on the delivery of abortion services.

TV viewers

Television viewers might have been suffering a bit Thursday night as It was over an hour before the first commercial break during the broadcast.

The first half of the debate was was nonstop discussion, giving next to no time for viewers to take a moment to process all that they had heard and seen. 

More: The best Democratic debate so far may have been the worst TV; here’s why that matters

And the debate had a somewhat abrupt ending. It had been expected to run from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET, but ended 15 minutes early with no warning to viewers when ABC turned to some analysis from pundits. Unlike past debates, this one had no time set aside at the end for the candidates to make closing remarks directed at the audience in the hall, watching on TV and following online. 

What about Biden, Warren and Sanders?

The three leading Democratic candidates — Biden, Warren and Sanders — survived Thursday's debate.

And that’s all they did.

There were no standout moments for them, but most importantly, there were also no flubs. The frontrunning candidates were able to hold their own against attacks, but at times some of them, such as Warren and Sanders, would go more than 10-minute periods without getting a word in.

Biden had some gaffes, but not enough to sink him.

Although they didn’t make any damning mistakes, they did not necessarily show Democratic voters one important thing: Whether they are ready to stand up against Trump in 2020. 

If his habit of tweeting insults is any indication, Trump is likely to be a ruthless competitor once the general election cycle rolls around next year, and, based on Thursday night, it’s unclear whether any Democratic candidate is prepared at this point to take him on.

Contributing: Nicholas Wu

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Democratic debate winners and losers: Gun control, Julian Castro