5 key takeaways from the 1st night of Democratic debates

Candidates fought through awkward audio issues and strict time limits.

June 27, 2019, 2:29 AM

One of the first high-profile moments in 10 candidates' campaigns came and went on Wednesday night.

Though confrontation was muted, there were moments of clarity on issues that voters have said are top priorities, like health care and the crisis at the border, as candidates fought through awkward audio issues and strict time limits to introduce themselves to the Democratic voters who will decide their future in 2020.

The candidates included Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The candidates made their voices heard, though some fared better than others. At the end of the two-hour debate, Booker and O'Rourke got away with almost 11 minutes of speaking time, followed by Warren and Castro at around nine minutes, ahead of de Blasio and Inslee, who had only about five minutes.

Here are the key takeaways from the first debate of what's sure to be a long election cycle.

For additional coverage from Wednesday night, check out the ABC Newslive blog.

Dems play nice

For the first time, the Democrats had a chance to set themselves apart or go after competitors in front of a national audience. The question loomed: Would voters see camaraderie or intraparty criticism? Attacks were sparse and muted, both among the candidates on the stage and toward the man who will be their opponent in the general election, President Donald Trump.

That's not to say the president didn't come up. Each Democrat onstage painted a grim picture of the country under the current administration, and seven of the 10 candidates named Trump directly. Warren, Delaney and De Blasio did not. At one point, when candidates were asked to name the single biggest threat to the country, Inslee said, "Trump." He added: "There's no question."

Overall, however, Trump wasn't often called out by the Democrats -- just 20 times over two hours. Klobuchar, who said the president's name the most, did so five times in her roughly nine minutes of speaking time.

For the most part, candidates stuck to introducing themselves to the voters. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the clear front-runner according to early polls, wasn't mentioned at all.

The lack of attacks also meant that any back-and-forths between candidates stood out, creating newfound competitive dynamics.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidates
Rep. Tim Ryan, Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard participate in the NBC News Democratic Candidates debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, on June 26, 2019.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Texans tangle over immigration

One such moment was between the two Texans, Castro and O'Rourke, who squared off over border security and family separation, two issues affecting the country as well as their home state.

In a strong moment for the lesser-known candidate, Castro pushed O'Rourke to support his plan to decriminalize all border crossings and make them a civil offense, a measure for which both Warren and Booker have issued support. O'Rourke has said he doesn't support that because of concerns over violent offenders coming across the borders.

"I just think it's a mistake, Beto. I think it's a mistake," Castro said in one of the first moments of direct confrontation on stage.

"I think if you truly want to change the system, that we got to repeal that section," added Castro, referring to a portion of U.S. immigration law that prohibits undocumented migrants from crossing the border.

Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O'Rourke participate in the first Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 26, 2019.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The moment created a new distinction between the only candidates on stage from a state on the southern border -- and one Castro sought to command, while also painting O'Rourke as out of touch and having not done his "homework."

"Let me respond to this very briefly," O'Rourke said. "As a member of Congress, I helped to introduce legislation that would ensure we don't criminalize those seeking asylum. If you are fleeing desperation, I want to make sure you are treated with respect."

Castro pushed back, contending that other parts of the law already protect asylum seekers, while O'Rourke called the issue "one small part."

"I'm talking about a comprehensive rewrite," O'Rourke said.

A clear distinction on one of the most-talked-about platforms: Medicare for All

In a muddled debate containing many similar views, a moment on Medicare for All provided an opportunity for differentiation.

The policy, proposed by Sanders in the Senate, would create a single-payer health care system in the U.S. and eliminate private insurance. Many 2020 candidates have signed on to support it, but Warren has wavered on whether she would actually get rid of private insurance entirely.

On Wednesday, however, candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would abolish private health insurance as president. In a stark moment of contrast, only Warren and de Blasio raised their hands.

For Warren, it was a revealing and perhaps calculated moment. As recently as March, she said that there "could" be a role for private insurance companies under a Warren administration, but on the debate stage she was firm in her support for Sanders' plan, including the elimination of private health insurance.

"Yes, I'm with Bernie on Medicare for All, and let me tell you why," Warren said. "Look at the business model of an insurance company. It's to bring in as many dollars as they can in premiums, and to pay out as few dollars as possible for your health care."

She continued, indirectly hitting the other eight candidates on stage who didn't raise their hands.

Elizabeth Warren participates in the first Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 26, 2019.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

"I understand there are a lot of politicians who say, 'Oh, it's just not possible, we just can't do it, we have a lot of political reasons for this.' What they're really telling you is they just won't fight for it. Well, health care is a basic human right, and I will fight for basic human rights," she said.

Republicans want to run on the economy. Democrats might be running against it.

It was the first point many of the Democrats on stage set out to make: Though the president touts a solid economy and keen business acumen, they won't be handing him an easy victory there.

Again and again, Democrats from the progressive to moderate side of the stage pushed back on the idea that Americans are riding out the successes the president trumpets, like low unemployment and a relatively high GDP.

Though Trump often says the U.S. has the "best unemployment numbers we've had in 51 years" and a GDP that people are "shocked by" at 3.2%, the facts are more nuanced, and candidates jumped on that.

"Who is this economy really working for? It's doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top," Warren said at the top of her first remarks.

"Well, first, the economy, we know that not everyone is sharing in this prosperity," Klobuchar said. "And Donald Trump just sits in the White House and gloats about what's going on."

O'Rourke said the economy has to work for everyone "and right now, we know that it isn't," while Gabbard said the American people "deserve a president who will put your interests ahead of the rich and powerful."

"That's not what we have right now," she added.

Booker, who lives in Newark, New Jersey, said not everyone is seeing a slice of the pie.

"And I'll tell you this," he added. "I live in a low-income black-and-brown community. I see every single day that this economy is not working for average Americans."

Democratic presidential hopefuls greet each other at the end of the first night of the Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 26, 2019.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Splashes of Spanish

Some attempts by candidates to break through were more successful than others, and a few that stuck out could've required subtitles.

It took less than 10 minutes for O'Rourke to transition to Spanish. The former congressman from El Paso took the chance to show off his foreign language skills on his first question, calling for a "democracia" that worked for everyone. He ultimately didn't give a clear answer on the question, which was about marginal tax rates, but he kicked off a trend that Booker and Castro later followed.

Booker first switched to Spanish in a question about the border, an issue at the forefront because of the location of the debate: Miami, a city just 30 miles from a detention center holding migrant children that at least 13 of the candidates have visited or are scheduled to have visit.

Booker again switched to Spanish for his closing remarks, and O'Rourke used his skills a second time talking about the border. The language transitions prompted 2020 candidate Marianne Williamson to joke on Twitter that she might need to learn Spanish before her time on stage Thursday night.

While Booker and O'Rourke's Spanish speaking-moments were an effort to connect to Latinos, Castro, the only Latino on the stage, used his closing remarks to make a point about diversity: "Me llamo Julián Castro y me estoy postulando para Presidente de Los Estados Unidos," he said, introducing himself and saying he's running for president.

"Tonight shows the progress that we have made in this country," Castro added. "Like many of you, I know the promise of America."

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