Status quo remains intact after third Democratic debate

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Image: Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren speak during the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston, Texas, on Sept. 12, 2019.Mike Blake / Reuters

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — For everything that was different about last night’s Democratic presidential debate — finally just one night, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren sharing the same stage — so much seemed the same.

The same opening questions on health care and Medicare for All.

The same divide between progressives and pragmatists.

Pretty much the same questions on race and immigration.

And the same dynamic with a low-polling young candidate (this time Julián Castro) taking a not-so-subtle shot at Biden’s age.

Now there were some other differences. Biden — despite his characteristic verbal tics and unclear syntax – had his strongest performance to date.

Elizabeth Warren had another solid outing, but also struggled answering direct questions on her support for a "Medicare for All"/single-payer plan.

Bernie Sanders had a raspy throat.

Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke (invoking the El Paso shooting) punched above their polling weight.

Kamala Harris vacillated between her strong first debate performance (when addressing Trump) and her weak second performance.

And Andrew Yang said he would start giving away his $1,000-a-month plan to 10 American families.

But if anyone thinks last night debate changes the overall dynamics of this Democratic presidential race, they saw something we didn’t.

Last night only reinforced what we’ve already seen — including at past debates.

Here’s why Joe Biden remains your Democratic frontrunner

And if you’re the Trump campaign or Fox News, last night’s debate also reinforced an image of a Democratic Party that’s gone too far to the left.

O’Rourke said he would take away your AR-15. (“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”)

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders had no qualms about ending private health insurance in America. (“I've actually never met anybody who likes their health insurance company,” Warren said.)

And Pete Buttigieg emphasized his plan to bring immigrants to Small Town America. (“In some of the most conservative, rural areas of Iowa, I have seen communities that embraced immigration grow.”)

Well, guess who didn’t talk about taking away your AR-15 or your private health insurance.

Answer: Joe Biden.

And if you want to know why he remains the Democratic frontrunner and why he’s viewed as the most “electable” Dem by most voters, that’s a big part of the reason.

Right now, Biden is dominating the lane of Democratic primary voters who believe replacing Trump is the No. 1 priority.

2020 Vision: Fact-checking Castro vs. Biden

The most contentious portion of last night’s debate was when Castro took on Biden.

Castro: "The difference between what I support and what you support, Vice President Biden, is that you require them to opt in and I would not require them to opt in. They would automatically be enrolled..."

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Biden: "They do not have to buy in. They do not have to buy in."

Castro: "You just said that. You just said that two minutes ago. You just two minutes ago that they would have to buy in."

[snip]

Castro: "Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? I mean, I can't believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you're saying they don't have to buy in. You're forgetting that."

But, per NBC’s Mike Memoli, here’s what Biden DID say earlier: “Anyone who can’t afford it gets automatically enrolled in the Medicare-type option we have.”

Bottom line: It sure looks like Castro got his attack wrong.

NBC’s Benjy Sarlin adds that it appears Biden and Castro were talking past each other, with Castro highlighting a significant difference in their plans, while Biden was accurate in describing his own plan.

Still, talking past each other doesn’t justify a “are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” response.

On the campaign trail

Today: The day after the debate, Bernie Sanders stumps in Nevada, holding a town hall in Carson City and a rally in Reno… Kamala Harris raises money in Chicago… Steve Bullock, Tom Steyer, Michael Bennet and Tulsi Gabbard are in Iowa… And Tim Ryan remains in New Hampshire.

Saturday: Elizabeth Warren attends the MassDems Agenda convention in Springfield, Mass…. Sanders remains in Nevada… Beto O’Rourke stumps in Katy, Texas… Julian Castro attends the Cap Times Ideas Fest in Madison, Wis… Pete Buttigieg speaks at the CBC Phoenix Awards Dinner in DC… And Gabbard and Bennet stay in Iowa.

Dispatches from NBC’s embeds

After the third presidential debate ended, arguably the real debate began in the spin room, where candidates and surrogates tried to maximize certain parts of their night and spin some other ones. Per NBC’s Gary Grumbach and Priscilla Thompson:

Bernie Sanders said he doesn’t believe Vice President Joe Biden’s vote on the Iraq war is “disqualifying” but Sanders “helped lead the opposition to what turned out to be the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of America.” During the debate Biden expressed regret at voting for the war.

Andrew Yang commented on the legality of his freedom dividend (on the debate stage Yang promised to give 10 people $1,000 per month for one year): “We have an army of lawyers who signed off on this and said it was perfectly legal, but I want everyone to reflect for a moment that we are at a point in time when a billionaire can spend $10 million, plus buying his way onto the debate stage and everyone thinks that is A-okay but then us literally giving money to Americans … somehow that is problematic” (Wink, wink, Tom Steyer.)

Tweet of the day

Data Download: The number of the day is … 45 percent

45 percent.

That’s the share of Americans who are in favor of a mandatory buyback program of assault-style weapons, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Almost exactly the same share — 46 percent — are opposed.

Seven-in-10 Democrats favor the buyback plan, but just 40 percent of independents and 23 percent of Republicans say the same.

The Lid: I’m just a bill, sittin’ here on Capitol Hil

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we offered the good news that Americans know a little bit more about how the government works than they used to! (The bad news? It’s still not that much.)

ICYMI: New clips you shouldn’t miss

Miss the debate? Here are the highlights from our video team.

Meanwhile, the president had his own lengthy speech in Baltimore as counter-programming to the debate.

Dan Balz writes that Biden got the debate performance he needed, even though it was far from perfect.

The Air Force says it sent crews to Trump’s Scotland resort as many as 40 times since 2015.

Boris Johnson says he didn’t lie to the Queen about his reasons for wanting to suspend Parliament.

Trump Agenda: Another subpoena

The House Foreign Affairs Committee has issued a subpoena to Trump’s envoy who was negotiating with the Taliban.

Ivanka Trump says she got her moral compass from her dad.

Rudy Giuliani’s divorce is getting ugly — and public.

John Lewis may be close to announcing support for impeachment.

Trump says he wants to tackle homelessness in California, but the plans are hitting lots of snags.

What’s next for Andrew McCabe?

The Cheney v. Paul Twitter wars are still flaming.

2020: Is Yang’s giveaway legal?

So… is Andrew Yang’s $10,000 giveaway legal?

The New York Times looks at the new urgency on the Democratic debate stage.

Is Joe Biden still the frontrunner?