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Who won the Democratic debate? Elizabeth Warren, the front-runner rivals can't ignore

Wednesday was the first step in a campaign that will need to spotlight Warren’s skill set to a wide audience. But don’t be surprised if she comes away with the nomination.
Candidates Attend First 2020 Democratic Presidential Debate
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts waves as she arrives on stage during the Democratic presidential candidate debate in Miami on June 26, 2019.Jayme Gershen / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren took center stage in the very first Democratic debate of the 2020 cycle Wednesday night, literally at the center of the stage. Riding high off a very positive MoveOn poll, she has emerged as clearly the woman to beat. She may not have made waves, but while others to her right and left dodged and ducked — and tried to use their moments to give generic campaign speeches — Warren answered questions directly. She highlighted all of the qualities that have quietly made her such a force so far this primary: her intelligence, her confidence and above all, her preparation. She kicked things off by throwing down a clear gauntlet to the other candidates on stage: “We need to make structural change in our government, in our economy and in our country.”

It was a moment that established her status as the front-runner, no matter what Joe Biden supporters think.

You could make the argument that the reason Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election is buried in a 15-year-old clip from Bill Moyers’ PBS show. In that February 2004 episode, a fiery but relatively unknown Harvard law professor told a story about her own experience years earlier with then-first lady Hillary Clinton.

Elizabeth Warren told Moyers that she had met with Clinton after writing a column opposing a bankruptcy bill that was before Congress. Warren described how they ate “hamburgers and french fries” and talked about the problems with the bill. Clinton, says Warren, “got it.” Having been convinced of Warren’s side, Clinton worked in the White House to stop the bill from moving forward, including convincing her husband, the president, to ultimately veto it.

But what happened when the first lady became a senator just the next year? Clinton voted in favor of that same bill. “As Sen. Clinton, the pressures are very different,” Warren told Moyers. “She has taken money from the groups, and more to the point, she worries about them as a constituency. … This is the scary part about democracy today.”

There is some legitimate criticism of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but she doesn't blink. Her principles are sound, and she articulates them clearly and consistently.

The implication was clear — when the proverbial s*** was going to hit the fan, Clinton blinked. She gave in. She forgot her principles.

There is some legitimate criticism of Warren, but she doesn't blink. Her principles are sound, and she articulates them clearly and consistently. And it is this skill — this combination of principle plus policy — that has made her not only into a formidable Democratic candidate, but also the actual front-runner in the race.

The random drawing Warren received in Wednesday’s debate meant she would not spar with many of the other front-runners who were stacked Thursday night: Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, Mayor Pete Buttegieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders. This provided her with less of an opportunity to lob bombs at Biden and spar with the top tier, but in the short-term, it helped show the audience what it looks like to see Warren own the stage, a step above the just-happy-to-be-here's like Eric Swalwell. (Or was it Tim Ryan?)

Warren obviously has strong progressive support, but she also appears able to appeal to the two differing arms of the Democratic constituency, a key ability. Her only real competition for the progressive wing of the party is from Sanders, and the latest MoveOn poll has her well in the lead right now. (Of course, take all polls with a grain of salt right now.) But she knows how to speak to the center-left members of the party, with a pragmatic and practical approach. While Warren lags behind the current general polling leader Biden in a new Crooked Media survey of key early states, she is the clear “second choice,” as well as the choice of those who value “positions and policies” over electability measurements.

I wrote this week about how winning presidential candidates separate themselves from the pack with a secret ingredient of sorts that includes habits and flaws. They need some element of aspirational relatability. Warren has leaned into her nerdiness, to great success. She has plans, for practically everything. They are both serious and substantive, as well as, in some cases, surprisingly appealing to presumed ideological enemies like Tucker Carlson on Fox News. “Giant corporations have exactly one loyalty and that is to profits, and if they can save a nickel by moving a job to Mexico or Asia or Canada, they’re going to do it,” Warren said during the debate, sounding positively Trump-ian. “Any corporation can come and use that research, they can make all kinds of products from it, but they have to manufactured right here in the United States of America.”

And speaking of the president, while he went off on other Democratic candidates in a recent Time Magazine interview, he conceded that Warren is “doing pretty well.”

And don’t think the same push that drove Barack Obama in 2008, and then drove so many Trump voters in 2016, can’t drive Warren to success in 2020. The same sort of anti-corporate, pro-little guy, anti-Wall Street and even anti-D.C. sentiment that drove Trump to obliterate his 2016 primary opponents can push Warren ahead of those who feel tired of establishment stalwarts like Biden. And as she exposed in that 2004 interview with Moyers, she’s not afraid to get real about the legacy political class.

She’ll face challenges — she has never fully reckoned with the damage her Native American lineage and botched explanation did in the minds of a public that values “authenticity” in the Oval Office. (And her interview with Charlemagne tha God recently was a good example of the kind of media moment she needs to capitalize on next time). She has been, occasionally, painfully awkward on Instagram.

But at her core, Warren is not a politician. And as we saw in 2016, “not a politician” is exactly the kind of trait that resonates right now in America. Wednesday was the first step in a campaign that will need to spotlight Warren’s skill set to a wide audience. With the other top-tier candidates — Sanders, Biden, Harris and Buttigieg — in Thursday’s debate, her moment may be fleeting. But don’t be surprised if, almost exactly a year from now, Warren is accepting the nomination in Milwaukee. Then comes the bigger challenge of the professor versus the reality TV star. If she can stay who she was Wednesday night, she’ll be well on her way to pulling off the upset.