The Note: Democratic debate reframes race without reordering it

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidates appear at the third Democratic Presidential Debate of the 2020 campaign season in Houston, Sept. 13, 2019.PlayHeidi Gutman/Walt Disney Television
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The major Democratic candidates who were finally together on one stage Thursday night walked off of it without the race having shifted in fundamental ways.

But just because a debate didn't deliver game-changers doesn't mean it lacked in substance -- or for ways that could matter down the road of what's still a long race to come.

Former Vice President Joe Biden sought to reframe the race around the Obama legacy while brushing aside questions about his sharpness.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders brought new vitality into their arguments for a progressive left.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidates appear at the third Democratic Presidential Debate of the 2020 campaign season in Houston, Sept. 13, 2019. Heidi Gutman/Walt Disney Television
Democratic presidential candidates appear at the third Democratic Presidential Debate of the 2020 campaign season in Houston, Sept. 13, 2019.

The generational choices posed by Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Andrew Yang and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke are just beginning to play out.

And Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris delivered in ways that should reassure their donors while opening up potential new opportunities.

The debate had no clear winner or losers. The Democratic Party's future is no more or less settled -- though the terms of the race are better defined than ever.

The RUNDOWN with MaryAlice Parks 

Not only was the third debate a turning point in this race, it was a turning in the debate over gun safety reforms.

O'Rouke did not hesitate when asked head-on about his mandatory gun buyback plan.

"You know that critics call this confiscation. Are you proposing taking away their guns?" ABC News "World News Tonight" Anchor and Managing Editor David Muir asked the El Paso, Texas, native.

PHOTO: Democratic presidential hopeful former Rep. Beto ORourke speaks with the press after the third Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season in Houston, Sept. 12, 2019. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Democratic presidential hopeful former Rep. Beto O'Rourke speaks with the press after the third Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season in Houston, Sept. 12, 2019.

"I am. If it's a weapon that was designed to kill people on a battlefield," he replied and then received some of the loudest applause of the night.

Just six weeks after the domestic terror attack in El Paso, the moment felt especially powerful.

Democrats went further than they have in decades in the push to take assault weapons off the streets and showed that the political winds on the issue have shifted.

The TIP with Kendall Karson

At the Detroit debates, several Democrats took aim at former President Barack Obama's legacy -- both directly and indirectly -- on the key issues of health care and immigration. Among the 10 top contenders on the stage in Houston, some appeared to course correct Thursday night - either praising the most popular figure in the Democratic Party or redirecting their ire at President Donald Trump.

Before launching into her defense of Medicare for all -- which is seen as a comprehensive replacement for Obama's signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act -- Warren said, "We all owe a huge debt to President Obama, who fundamentally transformed health care in America."

PHOTO: Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris arrive on stage for the third Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season in Houston, Sept. 12, 2019. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris arrive on stage for the third Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season in Houston, Sept. 12, 2019.

Harris, who co-sponsored Medicare for all, echoed that sentiment, telling the crowd, "I want to give credit first to Barack Obama for really bringing us this far." She later added, "But at least five people have talked -- some repeatedly on this subject -- and not once have we talked about Donald Trump. So let's talk about the fact that Donald Trump came into office and spent almost the entire first year of his term trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act."

The one candidate who directly criticized Obama's record in July, particularly on deportations -- Castro -- struck a different chord at the ABC News debate, saying, "We owe a debt of gratitude to President Barack Obama."

THE PLAYLIST

ABC News' "Start Here" Podcast. Friday morning's special edition of "Start Here" features a full wrap-up of Thursday night's Democratic debate in Houston with ABC's Powerhouse Political team and a trip inside the spin room to hear from the candidates themselves. http://apple.co/2HPocUL

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TODAY

  • President Donald Trump meets with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at 3:30 p.m.
  • Vice President Mike Pence delivers remarks at the House Republican Conference Member Retreat dinner in Baltimore.
  • On Friday, Texas Democratic Party leaders host an 8:30 a.m. breakfast in Houston discussing plans to gain a majority in the Texas State House.
  • The Democratic National Committee host a panel discussion with Latino community activists, with DNC Chair Tom Perez, Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, and others.
  • Campaigning in Iowa this weekend: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Friday; Tom Steyer on Friday; Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., on Friday, Saturday and Sunday; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
  • Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, campaigns in New Hampshire on Friday and Saturday.
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden campaigns in Texas on Friday and Saturday, and Florida and Alabama on Sunday.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., campaigns in Nevada on Friday and Saturday.
  • On Saturday, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg attends the Congressional Black Caucus Phoenix Awards Dinner in Washington.
  • Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, campaigns in Texas through the weekend.
  • New York Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigns in South Carolina on Saturday and Sunday.
  • Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro campaigns in Wisconsin on Saturday.
  • Marianne Williamson attends a fundraiser in Los Angeles put on by Project Angel Food, a nonprofit that Williamson founded.
  • Former Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., holds a telephone town hall with high school students on Sunday.
  • Download the ABC News app and select "The Note" as an item of interest to receive the day's sharpest political analysis.

    The Note is a daily ABC News feature that highlights the day's top stories in politics. Please check back Monday for the latest.