WASHINGTON – The unusually tense, argumentative and personal tone of Wednesday’s Democratic debate — the most contentious of the campaign — reflected the urgency of the political moment: Most of the candidates could be out of the race in less than two weeks.
In past debates, when one candidate was perceived as a front-runner, he or she became the target of attacks. As expected Wednesday, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a lot of the heat. But with so many political crosscurrents buffeting the other five candidates, the attacks flew in all directions.
The multiple exchanges — Sen. Amy Klobuchar against former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren against former Vice President Joe Biden, Biden against Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sanders against Buttigieg, and so on — created a free-for-all that actually looked like a debate. Or maybe a prize fight, as Klobuchar said.
The cacophony had one clear result, however. It bolstered Sanders’ prospects. The debate was a two-hour crystallization of the inability of any of his rivals to emerge as a single, clear alternative.
Sanders leads his rivals in polls by a growing margin and is likely to soon be leading in the delegate count as well. Other candidates are jockeying to be the principal alternative, but are splitting the vote.
In earlier election cycles, a candidate could catch fire later in the process and still emerge as the winner. But the party’s heavily front-loaded schedule this year has changed the dynamics. By March 3, when California and 13 other states — including Minnesota — hold their nominating contests, roughly 40% of the delegates to the summer’s nominating convention will have been chosen.
Bloomberg, who has bet his entire campaign on those primaries, had hoped on Wednesday to portray the race as a fight between himself and Sanders.
Buttigieg expressed the anxiety of the candidates who are at risk of being left behind if that happens. “We could wake up two weeks from today, the day after Super Tuesday, and the only candidates left standing will be Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, the two most polarizing figures on this stage,” he said. “And most Americans don’t see where they fit if they’ve got to choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power.”
Bloomberg’s weak performance in the debate probably will abate talk of a two-person race, but it will increase the likelihood of Sanders continuing to gain strength.
Each of the candidates who has sought to be an alternative to Sanders has had a moment in the sun, but they have repeatedly eclipsed one another.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar, for example, have both risen in the past few weeks. But they compete for the same political and demographic slice of the electorate — centrist, white, college-educated voters. That put them on a collision course and generated a series of nasty, personal exchanges.
Biden came to the debate in deep trouble after humbling losses in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Warren’s goal was to revive her once high-flying campaign after months of sagging polls and a particularly lackluster debate and showing in New Hampshire.
She pursued that in an aggressive display that had her dominating large parts of the debate. In doing so, she ditched her call for party unity and swept a machine-gun spray of criticism across the field. “Amy and Joe’s hearts are in the right place, but we can’t be so eager to be liked by Mitch McConnell that we forget how to fight the Republicans,” she said, alluding to the claims by Klobuchar and Biden that they are able to work across the aisle. “Mayor Buttigieg has been taking money from big donors and changing his positions so it makes it unclear what it is he stands for other than his own ambition.”