After Brawl of a Debate, Dems Ponder

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Top Democratic candidates met in Las Vegas to debate on Feb. 19. Courtesy NBC News.

The Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday night, Feb. 19, with six candidates taking part, was being described by the news media the next morning as “spirited,” “fiery” and “lively,” a messy free-for-all and a biting (the Washington Post called it “devastating”) brawl that sizzled with animosity.   

At the Woman’s National Democratic Club, the audience of about 50 gen X-ers and seniors — about a quarter of whom were men — munched popcorn and cookies, sipped wine, filled out WNDC debate bingo cards and gasped, laughed, occasionally applauded and mainly mouthed the equivalent of OMGs throughout.

As they were leaving, close to midnight, most were reluctant to declare a winner

This was a significant contrast from the first debate, on June 26 and 27, which The Georgetowner also covered at the WNDC. On the debate stage for two nights, nearly two dozen candidates who had met the Democratic National Committee requirements regarding single-donation numbers and placements in national polls at that time, crowded the stage.

In June, the tone was competitive, the candidates mainly attempting to establish a memorable brand for themselves (Beto O’Rourke began his comments in Spanish). But they were respectful to each other, reserving their fire and scathing remarks for President Donald Trump.

The audience at the WNDC on those two summer days numbered in the triple digits. Participants wore hats, pins and T-shirts, touting the party and their favorite candidate. Groups of supporters for Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders (many of them 20-something millennials, both men and women) and for Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris (most gen Xers and seniors) clustered at tables. They screamed and applauded in approval when their candidates spoke, pumping their fists in the air when they blasted Trump. 

On Feb. 19, the crowd was more subdued, serious, intently listening. Some took notes. They talked quietly among themselves. There were no exuberant reactions for Warren when she took on Mike Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg early on, nor for Sanders during his snarky exchange with the former New York mayor.  

In fact, Sanders seemed unscathed by the many attacks on him, to which he responded almost immediately. When confronted with his refusal to produce full medical records after his heart attack last summer, Sanders retorted: “That’s like asking for Obama’s birth certificate.” Turning to Bloomberg, he grinned (okay, leered) and said: “We were in the same hospital.” “That was five years ago,” Bloomberg shot back.  

Nor did anyone in the audience really react to the extended attack on Bloomberg for not posting his tax returns online. “It’s complicated. It takes time,” Bloomberg said, partially echoing Trump. “I’ve been fortunate to earn a lot of money and now I’m giving it all away — a lot to Democrats.” 

In this debate, it seemed that the MSNBC moderators and the candidates had agreed to discuss more substantive questions about issues that Democrats — especially Latinos in Hispanic-heritage-heavy Nevada — are said to care about: more accessible health care and good jobs.   

But there was no focus on addressing gun violence, a big interest of D.C. and Virginia Democrats attempting to change gun laws in the area, considering that Las Vegas was the site of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history (in which 58 people were killed and 413 wounded by a single shooter, with the ensuing panic bringing the injury total to 869). But no one referred to that October 2017 event during the debate.

As in all the previous debates, there seemed to be no clear winner. While the lead has changed over the months (currently, it’s Sanders), all of the candidates have advantages in one state or in one demographic or another.

Some say Warren was the winner. Some CNN commentators gushingly called her “a badass woman.” Many of the women at the WNDC agreed that the winner should be a woman this time. But they winced, too, when they admitted that they weren’t sure America could elect a woman after 2016 (off the record, many of the club members revealed that they themselves did not support Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary, voting for Obama instead, and voted only reluctantly for Clinton in 2016).

But a number found themselves increasingly impressed with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), especially as a vice president. She would balance any of the more fringe and East Coast candidates on the top, they noted. 

There’s one more scheduled debate, on Feb. 25, four days before the African American-dominated primary caucus in South Carolina on Feb. 29. Then comes Super Tuesday, March 3, when 14 states hold primaries — including California, with the largest number of delegates, the majority of whom are expected to vote for Sanders. Predictably, Sanders said during the Feb. 19 debate that the nomination should go to the candidate with the highest number of delegates.

The underlying consensus, however, was there was one probable winner of the Feb. 19 debate: Donald Trump.

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