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Five things we learnt from the first Democratic debate

How to stand out in a huge field? Speak Spanish.

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Image Credit: NBC

How do you stand out in a crowd, when you agree with most of the people there?

That’s a question that ten Democratic Presidential hopefuls had to answer as the first debate of the primary kicked off in Miami, Florida last night. The two-hour long discussion largely focused on policy ideas, which made for a rather fast-moving conversation for the ten candidates, who had just 60 seconds to answer questions. One reporter at the debate complained of “policy whiplash” as candidates leap-frogged from topic to topic. Here are Nouse’s five main take-aways from the debates.

1. Too. Many. Candidates.
To reach this stage, candidates had to either be polling over one per cent in the primary, or have over 65,000 individual donors. The measures are designed to make debates accessible, but the crowding last night showed how hard it is to get your voice heard. ABC News found that time to speak was roughly proportional to candidates’ popularity: frontrunners Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Texas Senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker spoke almost three times as long as the bottom three candidates.

Booker stood out from the three on several key issues, and benefited from his extremely liberal stance on gun reform. In a race that will likely aggressive reward partisanship, his proposal that every gun owner in the US obtain a license for their firearm drew cheers from the room. The evening will come as a relief to his campaign: Booker’s polling numbers have been disappointing over recent months.

2. A Texas Takedown?
Of the lower-polling candidates, fmr. Obama Housing Secretary Julián Castro had the best night. A substantial segment of the debate focused on immigration. Having the most fleshed-out immigration policy allowed Castro to look exceptionally well-informed as other candidates made less inspiring speeches that focused on immigrants being beneficial to the US. Castro also instigated what CNN called a ‘Texas takedown’ on fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke, attacking his knowledge on the topic. O’Rourke has, so far, failed to criticise the law that makes entering the US without papers a federal crime, but Castro’s assertion that Beto had “not done his homework” was largely ironic: O’Rourke has the most fully-fledged immigration plan beyond Castro.

Earlier, in a section covering abortion, Castro once again was able to differentiate himself from the field, by raising “reproductive justice” for transgender women looking to have children: a clever move considering most of the Democratic field is relatively aligned on the basic issue of abortion.

A strong, memorable performance means that Castro should gain the most ground from the night. His strategy earned him substantial praise from the networks covering the debate, and led to subsequent higher airtime on cable news: an issue smaller campaigns have been battling for months.

3. Necesitas hablar español
Speaking Spanish was a gimmicky way for candidates to ensure they were remembered. O’Rourke used it in his first answer, and would later go on to have a full Spanish exchange with Telemundo host José Díaz-Balart. Three candidates (O’Rourke, Booker, and Castro,) showed off their linguistic skills, in a move that is an obvious signal to Hispanic voters. The group is a prime target for Democratic candidates in the 2020 election: expect to see more Spanish in the second debate tonight.

The reception to this was generally good: better than when the same move was made in the Republican primary debate, three years ago. Although 47 per cent of Democrats believed it was just pandering, many supported it, and it may help consolidate Hispanic voters, particularly for Cory Booker. The New Jersey Senator has been lagging well behind Biden in support with minority voters, despite his being mixed-race.

4. How do you solve a problem like McConnell?
Warren remained relatively aloof throughout the debate, avoiding scraps, and handling questions calmly. As the front-runner in the debate, she had the most to lose from her appearance, and has been gaining popularity steadily in the polls over the last two months, likely from the Sanders base.

Her response to the moderator’s questions on Supreme Court nominations left her stumped, however. Even if a Democrat wins in 2020, they will likely face a divided Congress, with Republicans in control of the Senate, and, therefore, Supreme Court nominations. None of the candidates presented a good solution to how they’ll deal with one of the most divisive, partisan American political leaders of the last century: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConell.

5. No bashing of Biden
Polling at over 30 per cent, Biden is the clear target for many of the candidates on stage tonight. This is odd, considering he wasn’t even in attendance, after the debates were split by the Democratic party into two groups of ten (the second happens tonight.) Many of the candidates, including Warren and Booker, were clearly trying to gain support from Biden’s base of moderate, mixed-race voters, but his agenda was impossible to criticise without actually facing him in a debate.

The second debate, starting at 2am tonight, will be Biden’s true test. He will need to take the same approach as Warren: being aggressive, or making another one of his infamous Biden gaffes, could be problematic for him as the primaries drag on.

Check back on Friday for Nouse’s reaction to the second debate, and find out whether Biden managed to keep it together. There will be a live blog available on my Twitter: @PatrickHWalker

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