Presidential candidates seek to impress in first debate


first debate

Jake Webster

Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls took the stage for the first debate in Miami Wednesday. Ten more will take the stage Thursday — only one will be the nominee.

Kelly Winfrey, coordinator of research and outreach for the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics and assistant professor of journalism, said debates can have a big campaign impact.

“A good debate [performance] can really increase support for a candidate,” Winfrey said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the front-runner of the candidates on stage Wednesday, received the first question.


Savannah Guthrie, one of the debate moderators, asked Warren about her plans for “significant economic change” and whether some Americans may worry that risks economic growth.

“So I think of it this way, who is this economy really working for?” Warren said. “It is doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. It’s doing great for giant drug companies; it’s just not doing great for people who are trying to get a prescription filled.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar has said programs such as free college are things she might do if she were a “magic genie.” She was asked whether her opponents are giving voters a “false choice.”

“We know that not everyone is sharing in this [economic] prosperity,” Klobuchar said. “Donald Trump just sits in the White House and gloats about what’s going on — and you have so many people that are having trouble affording college and having money affording their premiums.”

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke was asked whether he would support increasing the top marginal tax rate.

After asserting the economy must work for everyone, O’Rourke switched to speak in Spanish. He said: We need to include every person in the success of this economy, but if we want to do this, we need to include everyone in our democracy — every voter needs representation — we need to listen to every voice.

This was the first time in a presidential debate that candidates extensively spoke in Spanish. O’Rourke was joined by both former Housing and Urban Development Sec. Julián Castro and and Sen. Cory Booker in speaking the language.

O’Rourke said he would support a tax rate and a tax code that is fair to everyone.

Guthrie noted Booker has said “we should not be running around pointing at companies and breaking them up without any kind of process.”

Guthrie asked Booker why he disagrees with Warren’s plan to break-up big tech firms.

“I don’t think I disagree,” Booker said. “I think we have a serious problem in our country with corporate consolidation.”

Health care

Booker transitioned to discussing health care in his answer.

“We see that [problem] because consumer prices are being raised by pharmaceutical companies that often hold monopolistic holds on drugs,” Booker said.

Moderator Lester Holt then asked candidates to raise their hands if they would “abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan.”

Warren and de Blasio were the only candidates who raised their hands.

Holt asked Klobuchar why an “incremental” approach is better than a sweeping overhaul.

“I think it’s a bold approach — it’s something that Barack Obama wanted to do when we were working on the Affordable Care Act —  and that is a public option,” Klobuchar said. “I am just simply concerned about kicking half of America off their health insurance in four years.”

Warren has joined Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan.

“I’m with Bernie on Medicare for All, and let me tell you why — I’ve spent a big chunk of my life studying why families go broke, and one of the number one reasons is the cost of health care —  medical bills,” Warren said. “That’s not just for people who don’t have insurance — that’s for people who have insurance.”

O’Rourke has changed his position on health care since his 2018 senate campaign, now saying he is unsure whether he favors a bill replacing private insurance.

Holt asked him why:

“My goal is to ensure that every American is well-enough to live to their full potential because they have health care,” O’Rourke said. “Getting to guaranteed high-quality universal health care as quickly —  as surely as possible — has to be our goal.”

O’Rourke said health care should also mean every woman should be able to make her own decisions about her own body. He said he would not replace private insurance.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans.

Former Rep. John Delaney said millions of Americans like their private health insurance.

“I think we should be the party that keeps what’s working and fixes what’s broken,” Delaney said. “I mean doesn’t that make sense — we should give everyone in this country health care as a basic human right for free — full stop, but we should also give them the option to buy private insurance.”

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said the issue is being talked about the wrong way.

“Really what we’re talking about is our objective, making sure every single sick American in this country is able to get the healthcare that they need,” Gabbard said.

Gabbard also said she believes Medicare for All is the way to do that.

Castro said his health care plan would cover abortion.

“I don’t believe only in reproductive freedom — I believe in reproductive justice,” Castro said. “I absolutely would cover the right to have an abortion.”

Foreign policy

Debate moderator José Díaz-Balart said people are dying trying to enter the United States. He brought up a photo that has been circulating this week of the dead bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria, who died trying to cross the Rio Grande into the United States.

Díaz-Balart asked Castro what he would do on the immigration crisis if he were president today.

Castro said he became the first candidate to put forward a comprehensive immigration plan when he did so in April.

“Watching that image of Óscar and his daughter Valeria is heartbreaking,” Castro said. “It should also piss us all off. If I were president today, I would sign an executive order that would get rid of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy and the metering policy.”

Castro said the metering policy is basically what forced Óscar and Valeria to try to cross the river, during which they died.

Booker said in Spanish the situation now is unacceptable. This president has attacked and demonized immigrants.

“On day one, I will make sure that number one we end the ICE policies and the customs and border policies that are violating human rights,” Booker said. “When people come to this country, they do not leave their human rights at the border.”

Booker added he would reinstate DACA and ensure people on temporary protected status can remain in the United States and address the issues that make people feel they have to enter the country amid potentially deadly circumstances.

Each candidate was asked what they believe the biggest geopolitical threat to the security of the United States is:

Delaney: China and nuclear weapons

Gov. Jay Inslee: Donald Trump

Gabbard: Risk of nuclear war

Klobuchar: China and Iran

O’Rourke: Climate change

Warren: Climate change

Booker: Nuclear proliferation and climate change

Castro: China and climate change

Rep. Tim Ryan: China

De Blasio: Russia

Making an impression

Debates are the first time many voters are tuning into the election, and some candidates were able to use the debate stage to as a time to make sure voters could put a face to their name.

Booker, who is polling at an average 2.3% according to Real Clear Politics, spoke most frequently throughout the evening. The New York Times clocked him at 11:06 total speaking time. 

Booker was followed closely by O’Rourke, who spoke for 10:33. Warren, who consistently polls the highest among the 10 candidates on stage, spoke third most often, clocking in at 9:31.

Other than Booker and O’Rourke, no candidate spoke for more than 10 minutes.

Gabbard spoke for 6:39, but her sister tweeted from her account near the end of the debate that it was  “clear who MSNBC wants to be president: Elizabeth Warren,” and accused the network of “giving [Warren] more time than all the other candidates combined.”

A Wall Street Journal reporter tweeted after the event that she asked Gabbard about the tweet, and Gabbard “didn’t want to get into it.”

This was also the most diverse presidential debate stage in history.

Six women are currently seeking the Democratic nomination, with three on the stage Wednesday and three to come on Thursday. Winfrey said this shows a shift where women are seeking the presidency.

“I don’t know how sustainable [that trend] is,” Winfrey said.

Reporting contributed by Emily Berch.