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Politics & Government

Democratic Debate Recap


Last night, seven Democratic presidential candidates gathered on a stage together here in LA. But putting it that way makes it sound as though they were all in it together. In fact, the candidates went after one another more than they went after President Trump in this debate. NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow was watching it unfold. He's with me here in our studios at NPR West. Hi there, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: It's exciting to also be in Culver City, Calif.

GREENE: Well, it's exciting to have you here. Let's make this happen more. So you covered this debate last night. Were there surprises? And who stood out?

DETROW: Yeah. I think, to answer both of that first question, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. Our count of speaking time - she had the second to most speaking time - close race, only one second behind Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.


DETROW: There's no real prize for that other than us mentioning it.

GREENE: Photo finish.

DETROW: But it was notable because she really inserted herself into most of the big conversations of the night, really directed the flow of the debate a lot, repeatedly making the case that as Democratic voters everywhere obsess on finding someone who can beat Trump, she is the candidate with the most success in the Midwest, where the general election is going to play out.

You know, she's notably behind the top tier candidates in the polls, but she's steadily gaining more support in Iowa in particular. And if the other top candidates start attacking each other more, which is something we're going to get to next, she could possibly be the candidate to benefit.

GREENE: Yeah. You say we're going to get to it because there were a lot of attacks last night. There was South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who was taking attacks from multiple candidates, including Klobuchar, who went after him for his relative lack of experience. Let's give a listen.


AMY KLOBUCHAR: And I have not denigrated your experience as a local official. I have been one.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: You know - I'm sorry.

KLOBUCHAR: I just think you should respect our experience when you look at how you evaluate someone who can get things done.


AMNA NAWAZ: Thank you, Senator.

GREENE: So why is Buttigieg becoming such a target right now?

DETROW: Over the general usual reason in that he's doing really well (laughter). He is arguably the favorite at this point in time in the Iowa caucuses. He's ahead in the polls. He's got a lot of organization on the ground there. He's got a lot of money that he's been using to air a lot of television ads in Iowa. And he has been making this case that he, a 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., is the candidate to take on Donald Trump. But it's clearly, at times, grated on candidates like Amy Klobuchar, who have built a long track record in national politics, to hear that argument.

GREENE: Well, another Buttigieg moment is a moment that a lot of people are talking about this morning. He was criticized for taking money from big-dollar donors. This is an exchange between Buttigieg and Senator Elizabeth Warren.


ELIZABETH WARREN: Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.

TIM ALBERTA: Mr. Mayor, your response?


BUTTIGIEG: You know, according to Forbes magazine, I am the - literally the only person on this stage who's not a millionaire or a billionaire. So if...


BUTTIGIEG: This is important. This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.

GREENE: Raising money in a wine cave is a criticism. I mean, Democrats, Scott - didn't they used to sort of agree largely on campaign finance? It feels like that's going away. And if it is, what does that disagreement tell us about the race right now?

DETROW: Well, I think there's general agreement in big picture in hoping to change some laws and Supreme Court rulings on the matter. But in terms of how they're approaching this campaign, there is a big difference. And it gets to a lot of tension points in the current party - the balance between traditional populism and this party that's increasingly becoming the party of high income, high education voters and also the question of, do you focus solely on beating Trump or taking broader stands? - also transparency. There's a lot to unpack here.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders notably do not do high-dollar fundraisers. They basically only raise money online. They talk about - a lot about this. Buttigieg and Joe Biden do spend a lot of time doing fundraisers. And Buttigieg did a fundraiser at a winery in Napa, Calif.

GREENE: Was it a cave?

DETROW: It was in a wine cave. There was a big chandelier. And this is something other campaigns really seized on as a criticism, arguing, like Warren did, that Buttigieg is really selling himself to high donors with his time. And they're implicitly implying that there might be other things there. He has really pushed back on that. He's saying, I am doing - I'm following the rules and doing what needs to be done to raise resources. And that's how you beat the president.

GREENE: The name we haven't mentioned yet, Scott, Joe Biden - I mean, he's still leading in most recent polls. He's gotten attacked in previous debates - less so last night?

DETROW: Less so last night. And he actually really had his strongest debate so far of the year. At times, he's seemed kind of scattered in these debates. Of course, him having a weak performance in debates never seemed to have any impact on his poll numbers, which stayed high. So the question is, does him having a really strong night, making the clear case for his candidacy - does that give him a boost? Or, again, are voters kind of locked in on Joe Biden one way or another, and these debates don't make much of a difference?

GREENE: NPR's Scott Detrow here with me in Culver City, Calif. Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Nice to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.