What the candidates needed to show caucusgoers in Democratic debate — and how they did

Each of the candidates on Tuesday night’s debate stage had something they needed to accomplish.

Joe Biden had to show he’s not out of sync with younger voters, both in his references (avoid 1950s analogies) and his ability to hold onto a train of thought.

He stayed on point and kept the cultural references to a minimum. He boasted of being an average guy who can relate to Trump’s blue-collar voters, while having the political sophistication and experience to make foreign policy decisions. He showed concern for ordinary people with his support for free universal pre-K and infant care. But Biden also had to admit he was wrong in voting to go to war with Iraq. He now believes wars should be waged only with the informed consent of the American people and in multinational coalitions.

Bernie Sanders needed to quell the media frenzy over a recent report that he told Elizabeth Warren in 2018 a woman couldn’t be elected president.

He did better: He said he never said or thought that, and in fact had initially stepped back from running in 2015 in case Warren did. 

His other job was to show he can appeal to moderates despite the “socialist” label attached to him, which a moderator said two-thirds of voters don’t like. Sanders laid out a compelling case for the problems his policies, like a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free college and universal health care, would try to solve.

“How does it happen,” he asked, “in the richest country in the history of the world that half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck, trying to get by on 9, 10 bucks an hour? How does it happen that when the top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 92%, half a million people are sleeping out on the streets tonight?” 

Elizabeth Warren was already full of plans, but she had to disprove those who dismiss her as “shrill.” I say that advisedly since “shrill” is sexist. No one says it of a man. But every vote counts. So she had to show she’s not too cerebral or academic but someone you could relate to.

She did that in various ways, including discussing her own struggles to pay for child care when her kids were young. But she may have drawn her biggest applause using the gender issue to her advantage. She pointed out that the men on stage had collectively lost 10 elections, while the women had won all their races.

Pete Buttigieg needed to regain the momentum he had earlier and make a convincing case to black voters. There has been bad blood between him and Black Lives Matter in South Bend, Indiana, where he was mayor.

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