DETROIT, Michigan -- If this was the last stand for several Democratic presidential hopefuls, they made their words count -- and sting.
The first night of the second debate of the 2020 cycle saw the race’s leading liberals take heat from virtually all comers. While no candidate even mentioned the name of polling frontrunner former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., were put on trial by their fellow Democrats, in ways that could resonate even if neither of them winds up as the nominee.
Led by candidates who are not assured of slots in future debates, much of the field on stage Tuesday night argued that Sanders- and Warren-style progressive policies -- on health care, immigration, education and climate change -- would all but guarantee a second term for President Donald Trump.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, called it a “disaster” for the party to advocate ending private health insurance and embracing the “Green New Deal”: “You might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump.".
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, chimed in: “I quite frankly don’t think that’s an agenda we can move forward on and win.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., warned that some of her rivals were making promises they can’t keep on health care and college costs, while Democrats squabble over ideological purity: “We are more worried about winning an argument than winning an election.”
In the first of the two-night affair, even relatively small policy differences were cast as defining distinctions. It came under the auspices of a warning from Democrats from red and purple states: The progressive path is a path to defeat for Democrats, with Trump standing ready to twist their words.
The debate showed how the party has moved, with a resurgent progressive wing closer to mainstream policy than ever. The push back from Warren and Sanders drew on the fear that some Democrats have about the shape of the primary campaign thus far.
“We should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how to best provide that health care,” Warren said.
“Your question is a Republican talking point,” Sanders told CNN’s Jake Tapper, after repeated questioning on what Medicare-for-all would mean for doctors and patients.
But candidates who live in Trump country said they were worried about the way the party is positioning itself. Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont., said that discussion about decriminalizing border crossings or offering health care to undocumented immigrants was alienating many voters.
“This is part of the discussion that shows how often these debates are detached from people’s lives,” Bullock said.
“You are playing into Donald Trump’s hands,” he warned Warren a few moments later.
Representing something of a center, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, supported a public option as part of Obamacare in pitching “Medicare for America.” He argued that his candidacy would make his native Texas “a new battleground state.”
Mayor Pete Buttigieg landed on “Medicare for all who want it,” while also saying Democrats shouldn’t get caught up in semantic fights Republicans crave.
“It's time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say,” Buttigieg said. “If it’s true if we embrace a far-left agenda, they will say we're a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, they will say we're a bunch of crazy socialists.”
Broadly, the debate played into heart-vs.-head divide that has long defined Democratic primary politics. Warren cast her big ideas as motivating factors for young voters in particular.
“We can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else,” Warren said. “Democrats win when we figure out what is right and we get out there and fight for it.”
Sanders argued that he can win because he’s already winning in early battleground-state polling.
“I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas,” Sanders said. “Republicans are not afraid of big ideas.”
None of the candidates chose to engage with Biden, who was not present on stage Tuesday and who also occupies a more moderate policy position in the current field. Wednesday’s debate will feature him alongside nine other candidates, including senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.
Sanders and Warren may like the scrutiny on their policies, taking it as a signal that they are driving the Democrats’ policy debate. But so might Biden, who emerged unscathed and whose concerns about the party’s leftward lurch were teed up by a range of other candidates.
Perhaps half of the candidates on stage this week may not be at the next debate, which will air on ABC News and Univision in September. That debate will require higher thresholds for polling and fundraising for candidates to earn spots on stage.
But even if the candidates issuing warnings Tuesday are long gone by the fall, their words will linger. The party’s anxieties about moving left on policy while trying to go up against Trump will still be there when the field is narrowed.