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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden looks on as Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks during the fourth U.S. Democratic presidential candidates 2020 election debate at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio U.S., October 15, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton - HP1EFAG01IY7Q

5 takeways from the Democratic debate

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s emergence as a Democratic frontrunner made her a target during Tuesday’s debate, as other candidates vied for attention in what polls suggest is becoming a two-way primary race between her and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Here are a few takeaways from the latest Democratic primary debate:

Warren under attack, but stays on message

For the first time, Warren received the most attacks, confirming her status as a leading contender in the primary race. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg questioned how Warren would pay for her health care plan. Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke argued that Warren was “more focused on being punitive, or pitting one part of the country against another” than bringing people together. Sen. Kamala Harris of California tangled with Warren on regulating the technology sector, pressing Warren when the Massachusetts senator wouldn’t immediately agree that President Donald Trump’s Twitter account should be shut down.

But Warren stayed on message and turned each encounter into an opportunity to promote her policy proposals. The strategy worked. Unlike Biden, who struggled when he came under attack in the first primary debate, Warren seemed prepared for the scrutiny that comes with ranking high in the polls. She sometimes faltered when defending her health care plan, but in general, Warren seemed unflappable.

At times, especially in the first half of the debate, Warren received so much attention from the moderators and other candidates on stage that Biden faded into the background. It was a striking shift from just a few months ago, when Biden was the one fending off attacks from his competitors.

Warren dodges on health care

Warren’s worst moment of the night — and arguably her worst moment of the debates so far — came early, when she was pressed on her health care plan. Warren was asked several by a debate moderator if she would raise taxes on middle class families to pay for her health care plan. She never gave a straight answer, frustrating other candidates who credited Sanders with admitting that a “Medicare for All” plan would result in higher taxes.

“Costs will go up for the wealthy and big corporations, and for hard-working middle class families, costs will go down,” Warren said at one point, and she stuck to that line without offering more details. Buttigieg argued that her non-response was exactly why many Americans distrust politicians in Washington. “We heard it tonight: a yes or no question that didn’t get a yes or no answer,” Buttigieg said.

The exchange underscored the challenges Warren faces in trying to position herself as a viable general election candidate. She’s widely seen by voters as a staunch progressive who isn’t that different from Sanders — a self-described Democratic socialist. Warren may not describe herself in those terms, but her awkward dodge on health care Tuesday suggests she has more work to do to convince Americans she can move to the middle.

Biden forceful in defending himself and his son

Biden delivered a forceful defense of himself and his son Hunter Biden, both of whom were a critical part of a July conversation between Trump and the president of Ukraine. The president and his allies have claimed the Bidens engaged in corrupt activity, though there is no evidence of wrongdoing. Democrats launched their impeachment inquiry after finding out that Trump asked Ukraine’s president during that call to investigate the Bidens.

“My son did nothing wrong, I did nothing wrong. I carried out the policy of the United States government of rooting out corruption in Ukraine,” Biden said.

The former vice president also argued that Trump was attacking him because he has the best chance to win the general election in 2020. “He doesn’t want me to be the candidate,” Biden said of Trump, adding, “he knows if I get the nomination I will beat him like a drum.”

Age is an issue for the leading Democrats

All three top-polling candidates were questioned about their age, an issue that resurfaced earlier this month after Sanders suffered a heart attack. If elected, Sanders, 78, Biden, 76, and Warren, 70, would all be the oldest presidents in U.S. history at the time of their inauguration. Sanders said he planned to run a “vigorous” campaign; Biden said his age and experience would allow him to hit the ground running as president; and Warren claimed she would “out-work, out-organize and outlast anyone” else in the race, including Trump.

Nevertheless, try as they might to dismiss it, the age issue isn’t going away. Voters often voluntarily bring up the three top candidates’ ages in interviews with reporters. And the generational divide among the candidates on the debate stage Tuesday was stark. With the exception of the environmentalist Tom Steyer, every other candidate not named Warren, Sanders or Biden is under 60 years old. Two candidates, Buttigieg and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, are younger than 40.

Lower-tier candidates hitting their stride

There were few missteps from the second and third-tier candidates on the debate stage. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has honed his message about bipartisanship and empathy. Harris was in top form, reminding viewers of her standout performance at the first debate in Miami. Klobuchar was commanding at times, and every other candidate had at least one or two memorable moments throughout the night. Steyer, in his first debate appearance, did not wilt under pressure.

Yet so far the debates have not moved the needle for candidates struggling to rise in the polls. Tuesday’s debate is unlikely to be any different. And as time goes on, those candidates are running out of opportunities to gain traction. There are only a handful of debates left before the Iowa caucus kicks off the voting portion of the primary season, which means it will be harder for Booker, Harris and others to make a comeback.

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