WASHINGTON — For much of the fourth Democratic debate, there were effectively two people on the stage: Elizabeth Warren and everyone else.
In recent weeks, the Massachusetts senator has increasingly come to be regarded as the frontrunner in the battle for the presidential nomination.
Warren’s “status as frontrunner has been certified by the amount of incoming she is getting tonight,” tweeted David Axelrod, the political strategist behind Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential run.
That fire came courtesy of the 11 rivals who stood beside her onstage in Westerville, Ohio, and who sought to blunt her moment with varying degrees of success. During a conversation about technology companies, for example, Sen. Kamala Harris of California tried to get Warren to say whether she would have President Trump banned from Twitter.
Warren simply dismissed the question. “I don’t just want to push Donald Trump off Twitter. I want to push him out of the White House,” she said, then simply proceeded to talk over Harris.
The progressive senator’s new lead in polls remains tenuous at best, but most candidates understand perceptions matter more than crosstabs this early in a political contest. And the more Warren is perceived as a frontrunner, the more polls will reflect that she has indeed become one.
Her impressive fundraising numbers will only make it easier to argue that even though the Iowa caucuses are still months away, she is creeping ever closer to the prized realm of inevitability.
Tuesday night was largely about keeping Democratic voters from thinking there is anything inevitable about Warren’s campaign. Her rivals tried to portray her ideas as unrealistic and unworkable. Implicit in their attacks was the abiding notion that Warren’s policies are too far to the left to attract the moderate voters Democrats need to defeat Trump in next year’s presidential election.
Some of the attacks appeared to be ploys by low-polling candidates hoping for a David-slays-Goliath moment. One such moment came relatively early on, when Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota called Warren’s Medicare for All plan a “pipe dream.”
Warren answered, a little later, that it was high time for Democrats to “stand up” to various profiteers in the health care industry. “And if we don’t have the guts to do that,” she concluded, “if all we can do is take their money, we should be ashamed of ourselves.”
That the fight ahead was both difficult and necessary was a common refrain for Warren, and a kind of blanket defense against criticisms of her Medicare for All and wealth tax proposals. Regarding the latter, she explained that it was necessary to tax investment and inheritance, not merely income. “Look, I understand that this is hard,” Warren said, “but I think as Democrats we are going to succeed when we dream big and fight hard, not when we dream small and quit before we get started.”
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has tried to draw a contrast between himself and Warren on health care and other issues, decried her thirst for “infinite partisan combat,” which he suggested would not work in the Midwest.
With a dozen candidates onstage, it was hard for any one person to stand out. But 80 minutes into the debate, Warren had managed to do just that, with 22 minutes of speaking time. If that seems slight, consider that Joe Biden, the former vice president, was in second place with 16 minutes.
Biden had until recently been leading in the polls. But his misstatements, as well as questions about his son Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine, have sapped the strength he had when he entered the campaign some months ago.
Ineffectual for much of the debate, Biden went after Warren’s universal health care package, calling it “vague.” But the attack was itself vague, and culminated with Biden and Warren sparring over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Warren created despite some reluctance from the Obama administration.
“You did a hell of a job in your job,” Biden said.
Warren answered with a terse “thank you.”
Whether she earns the nomination or not, Warren is quickly becoming the candidate of the Democratic Party’s progressive base, playing the role that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders did in 2016, when he played the foil to the centrism of eventual nominee Hillary Clinton.
Sanders, who recently suffered a heart attack, may not have been the focus of Tuesday’s debate, but as the candidates were sparring, news broke that he had earned the much-desired endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, widely regarded as the brightest star in the Democratic Party. Fellow congressional newcomers Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota are also expected to endorse Sanders. How much those endorsements ultimately matter may not be clear for months, but they clearly imply that Sanders is not ready to concede the mantle to Warren just yet.
Nor were the centrists, for that matter. At one point, a frustrated Klobuchar — who has tried, and largely failed — to make the case that her Midwestern centrism is the best antidote to Trump — told Warren, “We just have different approaches. Your idea is not the only idea.”
That’s true. But Warren’s ideas are increasingly taking center stage.
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