Dick Morris: The Surprising Winners of the First Democratic Debate


The debate started and ended with Elizabeth Warren but in between, she faded as others stole the spotlight. There was an inescapable centrifugal force in this ten person debate. The minor candidates, given their first exposure to voters, will see their recognition build and their vote share grow. Warren, while dominating the field, was not able to hold all her support as others began to peel them away.

The Winners: 

The best performers, in order, were: Warren, Castro, Booker, Gabbard and de Blasio.

Warren staked out the class warfare ground and her highly effective performance poses a big challenge to Bernie Sanders to compete for it. Her rants against the wealthy will be effective in the primary. Her attacks on health insurance companies will score big (although polls show that 70 percent of Americans like their health insurance). She has seized the central battlefield of the Democratic primary and made it her own. We will be able to measure how she matches up with Sanders when he takes the stage in the second debate.

Warren, however, has a danger of being seen as a one-issue candidate. Her relatively unimpressive performances on issues like guns, climate change, immigration and Iran may permit other candidates to come in at the edges.

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Tulsi Gabbard is one such candidate. The congresswoman from Hawaii is attractive, with a resume that includes impressive service in the military with postings in Iraq, her clear, forceful, yet feminine style will attract many voters. Particularly as war clouds gather over Iran, her military experience and firm renunciation of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq will give her a strong appeal to women and peace-oriented voters.

Where Warren lectures us, Gabbard seems to want to lead us. Where the Massachusetts congresswoman speaks in sound bites, the member from Hawaii addresses us with warmth and compassion.

She may emerge as the real winner of the debate.

Castro is my third-place finisher from last night’s debate. His decisive claim to be the only Hispanic running (despite Beto’s language skills) gives him access to a large vote in this age of identity politics. He challenged Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan on immigration and held his ground. Combative, forceful, aggressive and bold, he came across as a tough fighter and skilled advocate.

Do you think Warren was a winner in this debate?

Cory Booker used the debate effectively to appeal to the African-American vote, a constituency that has not been widely heard from thus far in the contest. His positions on the issues fit in with the mold of the other candidates, but his unique racial appeal — in this post-Obama era — cannot be discounted. He’s polling at about 3 percent among a primary electorate that is over 15 percent black. This debate performance should bring more of these voters home.

Much as it hurts to say it, Mayor Bill De Blasio did very well, mobilizing his mayoral record and claims of achievement to attract support. He was forceful and dynamic. Those who do not know his record of corruption and incompetence in New York City might well fall for his act as he takes it on the road.

The Losers: 

The biggest loser was the man who wasn’t invited: Joe Biden. This largely attractive and intriguing field of Democratic candidates will exert a gravitational pull on Biden’s voters and lead many to defect.

Before voters can be induced to opt for the default choice — a 70 something former moderate with two losses already under his belt — the rest of the field needs, at some level, to be boring and inadequate. In this debate, they were anything but.

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The losers among the debaters were: Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Ryan, Inslee and Delaney.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar had her moments, but it was clear that she has no unique selling proposition, a debilitating liability in a 23-way field.

O’Rourke seemed over-awed by the process and not a little intimidated. His answers lacked substance and force. He is a man who has peaked and been found to be an empty suit.

Inslee, at least, has a unique selling proposition — climate change — and stuck by it. But, when we are talking about issues like the economy, inequality, gun violence in schools, Iranian nuclear ambitions and border security, Inslee’s issue seems a bit hypothetical and premature. Perhaps it might work better in 2024…or ’28.

While this debate was well mannered and civil with only occasional confrontations, tomorrow’s will likely be raucous as Biden and Bernie battle to preserve their front runner status.

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Dick Morris is a former adviser to President Bill Clinton as well as a political author, pollster and consultant. His most recent book, "50 Shades of Politics," was written with his wife, Eileen McGann.