2020 Election

11 Biggest Takeaways of the October Democratic Debate

10 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was already heading into the fall campaign season with a tailwind, had a strong night at the October Democratic primary debate, emerging as the de facto front runner on the debate stage.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, both of whom had been battling for prominence in the crowded field, also turned in strong performances, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had been absent from the limelight since his heart attack, came back swinging.

Vice President Joe Biden held his own, Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke got into a tussle with Buttigieg, and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard made nearly every expert on U.S. foreign policy simultaneously cringe.

Here are the top 11 takeaways from the Democrats’ fourth primary debate.

1) Bernie’s back

The debate marked Sanders’ first appearance on the campaign trail since he was hospitalized for a heart attack on Oct. 1. The Vermont senator was lively and cracking jokes—an effort to lay to rest his supporters’ fears that he would not be healthy enough to soldier on to 2020. The Washington Post also broke the news Tuesday night that Sanders would be endorsed by both New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar—both progressive rising stars with national name recognition. — Lissandra Villa

2) Warren emerged as the one to beat

It was the first debate in which Warren, rather than Biden, was treated as the de facto front runner—and was therefore the subject of her fellow Democrats’ most pointed attacks. The Massachusetts senator weathered incoming volleys over her Medicare for All health proposal, her anti-monopoly plan, and what rival Beto O’Rourke described as her “punitive” stance. (She is “pitting some part of the country against the other,” the former Texas Representative complained.) Even Biden, who has previously taken a softer tone with Warren, suggested it was he and not Warren who successfully shepherded her signature Consumer Financial Protection Bureau into law. “And I went to the floor and got you votes,” Biden said with pique. “I got votes for that bill. I convinced people to vote for it. So let’s get those things straight, too.” The moment signaled that, four months before Iowa kicks off the Democratic Party’s nominating process, Warren’s slow progress up in the polls is finally threatening Biden’s perceived inevitability. — Philip Elliott

3) Pete went on the offensive

Buttigieg, who has thus far run a fairly peaceful campaign, was throwing punches all night, establishing himself as one the most forceful moderates on the stage. When Syria came up, he attacked Gabbard (“You can put an end to endless war without embracing Donald Trump’s policy, as you’re doing”), and when health care came up, he went after Warren’s plan. When the topic of gun buybacks prompted O’Rourke to suggest that Buttigieg was “limited by the polls and the consultants and the focus groups,” the South Bend mayor punched back—hard. “I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal,” he said. Throughout the night, Buttigieg fought for the moderate lane, insisting that his progressive opponents do not have a monopoly on boldness, and was uncharacteristically forceful in making his arguments. — Charlotte Alter

Democratic Presidential Candidates Participate In Fourth Debate In Ohio
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on Oct. 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio.Win McNamee—Getty Images

4) Medicare for All is still drawing fire

As in previous debates, the stage was deeply divided on Medicare for All. Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar lambasted the single-payer program as costly and unrealistic (Klobuchar memorably called it a “pipe dream”), while Warren and Sanders went to bat to defend it (“Medicare for all is the gold standard,” Warren said). When Warren again dodged the question of whether her plan would raise taxes on the middle class, Buttigieg dug in: “I don’t understand why you believe the only way to deliver affordable coverage to everybody is to obliterate private plans, kicking 150 million Americans off of their insurance in four short years,” he said, turning his body toward Warren. “Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this.” The Massachusetts senator, keeping her gaze toward the crowd, refused to engage. Medicare for All would prove the Democratic Party was willing to take on the insurance industry, she said. “If we don’t have the guts to do that, if all we can do is take their money, we should be ashamed of ourselves,” she said. — Abigail Abrams

5) Everyone described that Trump’s Syria policy is a disaster. Except Gabbard

All the Democrats on stage agreed that Trump’s sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria last week was a grave mistake, calling it a betrayal of U.S. partners in the region and warning that it would boost Islamic State militants. “It’s been the most shameful thing any president has done in modern history in terms of foreign policy,” Biden said. California Sen. Kamala Harris was even more direct: “He sold out the Kurds,” she said. But the only two military veterans on stage—Gabbard and Buttigieg—clashed when Gabbard, who met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2017, described U.S. involvement in Syria as an effort to provoke “regime change,” an assertion that most U.S. foreign policy experts would find baffling. Buttigieg shot back that she was “dead wrong,” declaring that “the slaughter going in Syria is not a consequence of American presence, it’s a consequence of a withdrawal and a betrayal by this president of American allies and American values.” — Vera Bergengruen

6) All the candidates backed the impeachment inquiry for the first time on the debate stage

In the first debate since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi officially launched an impeachment inquiry, the Democratic candidates were in agreement: the House should investigate President Trump’s alleged high crimes. While the candidates’ positions differed slightly, all 12, including Tulsi Gabbard—who had not supported the inquiry at the previous debate—were unequivocal in their support of the House investigation. — Alana Abramson

7) The Supreme Court finally got some love

Trump made nominating conservative judges to the Supreme Court a central part of his 2016 campaign, but Democrats have been slower to elevate the idea, despite growing calls from advocacy groups. That changed at Tuesday night’s debate. Biden and Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro both strongly condemned proposals to embrace court packing (“We begin to lose any credibility the court has at all,” Biden said), while Buttigieg released a plan to expand the number of justices to fifteen. “We can’t go on like this where every single time there is a vacancy, we have this apocalyptic ideological firefight over what to do next,” he said. Both Buttigieg and Castro said they would support term limits for justices. “It is a major moment to finally see Supreme Court reform discussed at this Democratic debate,” progressive advocacy group Demand Justice tweeted. “Everything else discussed tonight will come down to the Court.” — Tessa Berenson

8) No one had a good answer for how to handle Trump’s baseless allegations

While absent from the stage, President Donald Trump set much of the agenda early on in the debate: the first 20 minutes centered on the House’s impeachment inquiry into Trump’s alleged efforts to push Ukraine and China to investigate Biden and his family. While Trump’s alleged high crimes are what’s under investigation, the former Vice President was forced to defend himself too. The situation called to mind a 2020 version of Trump’s 2016 obsession Hillary Clinton’s emails — a story that dogged her campaign well after the Justice Department said she had broken no laws. — Philip Elliott

9) The issue of abortion access was mentioned for the first time

Harris forced the issue: “This is the sixth debate we have had in this presidential cycle and not nearly one word — with all of these discussions about health care — on women’s access to reproductive health care, which is under full-on attack in America today,” she said, referencing the nine states that have passed bills to limit abortion this year. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker later interjected to heap praise on her for bringing up the topic. “God bless Kamala,” he said. Moderators eventually asked candidates how they’d protect access to abortion. Harris said she’d have the Department of Justice review state legislature’s laws before they can take effect; Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he’d consider adding judges to the Supreme Court to preserve Roe v. Wade; and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro lobbied for term limits for appellate court justices. Others suggested codifying Roe v. Wade. — Abby Vesoulis

10) Warren’s proposal to break up Big Tech got air time — and pushback

Warren’s plan to break up the nation’s largest tech firms, such as Amazon, Google and Facebook, was mostly panned by her fellow Democrats. Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang said that while Warren’s diagnosis of the issue was “one-hundred percent” correct, her solution was wrong, and O’Rourke suggested that Warren’s proposal was akin to Trump’s treatment of the media. “We will be unafraid to break up big businesses if we have to do that, but I don’t think it is the role of a president or a candidate for the presidency to specifically call out which companies will be broken up,” he said. Booker declined to directly endorse Warren’s proposal, but said he’d “put people in place that enforce antitrust laws,” while Harris deflected by introducing a different topic entirely — whether President Donald Trump should be kicked off Twitter. — Abby Vesoulis

11) And the battle over Democratic hearts and minds will rage on

While Warren and Sanders repeatedly argued for fully overhauling the existing systems, Klobuchar and Buttigieg made the case for more incremental reform. “We cannot wait for purity tests. We have to just get something done,” Buttigieg said during a discussion about gun control. At different points in the night, candidates from the progressive wing called to legalize heroin and opioids, guarantee a basic income, and impose door-to-door gun confiscation. While those positions earned cheers from liberals, they may also cost support from suburban and moderate voters. Booker, who delivered another debate performance in which he emerged as a calming force, warned Democrats against fighting with one another—and therefore doing the work of Trump’s re-election campaign. “The only person sitting at home that was enjoying that was Donald Trump,” he said, referencing a heated exchange of words, “seeing that we’re distracting from his malfeasance and selling out of his office.” — Abigail Abrams and Philip Elliott

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Philip Elliot/Westerville, Ohio at philip.elliott@time.com