Last Night's Debate Proved Elizabeth Warren Is the New Democratic Front-Runner

The attacks clearly rattled the Massachusetts Democrat, but she proved she can take a punch, or two.
October 16, 2019, 2:42pm
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WESTERVILLE, Ohio — Need proof that Sen. Elizabeth Warren is the new front-runner? Just look at yesterday's debate.

Much like former Vice President Joe Biden was everyone’s punching bag during the first few Democratic debates when he was the top dog, Warren was the object of the Democratic primary field’s ire on Tuesday night, as she absorbed hit after hit from her opponents.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg jabbed her for being “evasive” on who would shoulder the cost of Medicare for All. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) tried to stump her on foreign policy. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) slammed her for trying too hard to soak the rich. Businessman Andrew Yang tried to debunk her tech policy plans.

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Everyone tried — unsuccessfully — to get her to say the word “taxes.”

While the attacks appeared to rattle the usually unflappable Warren, her team argued that the limelight only reinforced her status as the new candidate to beat.

“Since the beginning, I think she's kind of led the pace in terms of issues, right? She's come up with all these policy prescriptions,” Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), a Warren surrogate, told VICE News in the spin room after the debate. “That was on stage tonight.”

Standing center stage in the Otterbein University hall, the Massachusetts Democrat lapped all the other candidates in speaking time during the first half of the debate — largely because everyone else kept attacking her and moderators needed to give her time to respond.

By the end of the debate, Warren had about twice as much speaking time as, if not more than, every candidate except Biden. She was the third-most searched for candidate online, according to Google trends.

That appearance of a lead tracks with polls, which have shown a steady rise for Warren nationwide and in some key early primary states, particularly Iowa, where she recently began outpolling Biden among likely caucus-goers.

READ: No More Mr. Nice Mayor Pete

Warren was able to easily dodge some of the attacks.

O’Rourke, for instance, accused Warren of being “punitive” for pitching an increased tax on the uber-wealthy, and “pitting one part of the country against the other, instead of lifting people up.”

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“I’m really shocked that anyone thinks I’m punitive. I don’t have a beef with billionaires,” Warren responded. “All I'm saying is you make it to the top, the top one-tenth of one percent, then pitch in two cents so every other kid in America has a chance to make it.”

Still, other attacks landed harder.

Warren struggled as Buttigieg pointed out she’d been asked “a yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer,” on whether her Medicare for All plan would increase middle-class taxes — even after the plan’s author, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has previously said it would.

“Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this,” Buttigieg said.

“So my view on this, and what I have committed to, is costs will go down for hardworking, middle-class families. I will not embrace a plan like Medicare for all who can afford it, that will leave behind millions of people who cannot,” Warren replied.

"At least Bernie's being honest here and saying how he's going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) fired back. “And I'm sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we're going to send the invoice.”

READ: Elizabeth Warren Won't Say the Word ‘Taxes’ When She Talks About Medicare for All

Klobuchar took it to Warren later in the debate as well, accusing her of being dismissive of other Democrats who didn’t see exactly eye-to-eye with her on policy and accusing detractors of employing Republican talking points.

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“No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire [Tom Steyer] wants to protect billionaires,” Klobuchar said to laughs. “We just have different approaches. Your idea is not the only idea.”

To that, Warren responded by reiterating the theme of her campaign.

“Look, I understand that this is hard, but I think as Democrats we are going to succeed when we dream big and fight hard, not when we dream small and quit before we get started,” she said.

Warren also left an opening for candidates to expose her on foreign policy, a topic that has not been a strength of hers throughout her career, which has centered on domestic issues.

Gabbard name-checked Warren a few times during the debate, challenging her to articulate a foreign policy. At one point, Gabbard asked Warren to join her in calling for an end to regime-change wars.

“I think that we ought to get out of the Middle East. I don't think we should have troops in the Middle East. But we have to do it the right way, the smart way,” Warren responded.

That opened up an opportunity for other campaigns to try to paint Warren as naive. The Biden campaign, in particular, pounced, and appears to hope Biden’s reputation as a statesman and figure on the world stage can help him maintain a top position in the race.

“I thought it showed a striking degree of naivete and unpreparedness. I suspect she'll be walking that back pretty far. I mean she really means that, that we should have no troops anywhere in the Middle East?” Biden surrogate Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told reporters in the spin room after the debate. “We have a very significant troop presence across many countries, and that would be a dramatic change.”

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Warren also tangled with former vp Biden at the end of the debate, implying but refusing to say outright that he hadn’t done much to help her create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, after he claimed he was the only one onstage with any real policy accomplishments.

The tense exchange left both candidates seeming sour.

But other attacks against Warren fell flat — like Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-Calif.) attempt to get Warren to agree with her that Twitter should ban President Trump.

“So, look, I don't just want to push Donald Trump off Twitter. I want to push him out of the White House,” Warren said.

Cover: Former Vice President Joe Biden challenges Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)