Election 2020 Debate

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper participate in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The first night of the Democratic presidential debate was more about pulling apart from the field than pulling a fractured party together.

It started differently. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of two liberal icons on the stage in Detroit, declared she was a Democrat first, and if she wasn't the nominee she would work tirelessly to elect anyone from her party to remove President Donald Trump from the White House.

Democrats, otherwise, did little to reassure those hoping to unseat Trump that the party has a unified electorate.

They squabbled about universal health care. They bickered over the finer points of immigration. Some questioned whether the Green New Deal was pie in the sky, and I half-expected some to say it was apple and others to say peach, before Marianne Williamson called it boysenberry.

Their common enemy, Trump, made only guest appearances in the dialogue. 

"Donald Trump disgraces the office of president every single day," Warren said. "And anyone on this stage tonight or tomorrow night would be a far better president. I promise, no matter who our candidate is, I will work my heart out to beat Donald Trump and to elect a Democratic Congress."

Then she mic-dropped truth. "But our problems didn't start with Donald Trump," Warren stop.

She and Sen. Bernie Sanders shared the stage with former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and other moderates Tuesday night. The pair must have felt like raw steak in a dog pound.

For low-polling candidates such as Hick, these debates represent the hill they might die on. The next debates will have a higher threshold, and probably half the field will fall to the wayside.

Everyone was a puncher, including the Colorodan. The second from our state, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, will be on stage Wednesday night against nine other hopefuls, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.

Hickenlooper looked more formidable this time around than he did in his first presidential debate last month in Miami. Was it enough? Probably not. He's a 1 percenter, so it's hard to see how even his best shots could get him back in this prize fight, before his money runs out and he sinks farther into irrelevance.

He had the least amount of stage time of any of those on the stage on night one. Hickenlooper spoke for eight minutes and 37 seconds. That was 16 seconds less than Williamson, who was ninth, and almost 10 minutes less than the first-place gabber, Warren, according to CNN's counter.

The Washington Post named Hickenlooper neither a winner or a loser in its assessment, in an era when even bad press is better than no press at all.

In his introduction, he tried to to play to the middle -- saying to his party's progressive base, "Here, kitty, kitty" instead of "shoo." 

"Now," the Rocky Mountain moderate began, "I share their progressive values, but I'm a little more pragmatic."

But he showed no fear in going after Sanders, admonishing the idiosyncratic senator from Vermont to "throw your hands up" on how Sanders' sweeping health care overhaul would make it impossible for those who like their private insurance to keep it, and for states to implement it. 

"I think if we're going to force Americans to make these radical changes, they're not going to go along," Hickenlooper charged.

Both men wound up throwing their hands in the air, and so did a lot of undecided voters, most likely.

Hickenlooper also took on Warren over Medicare for All. The mild-mannered former barkeeper got under her skin, it seemed.

"I think proposing a public option that allows some form of Medicare that maybe is a combination of Medicare Advantage and Medicare, but people choose it, and if enough people choose it, it expands, the quality improves, the cost comes down, more people choose it," Hickenlooper proposed. "Eventually, in 15 years, you could get there, but it would be an evolution, not a revolution."

You could sense Warren's scoff from 1,300 miles away in Denver. She gave him a rhetorical double snap.

"We have tried this experiment with the insurance companies, and what they've done is they've sucked billions of dollars out of our health care system," she replied to Hickenlooper. "And they force people to have to fight to try to get the health care coverage that their doctors and nurses say that they need. "

Warren punched down at Hickenlooper again on his moderate approach to immigration reform. The former governor threw shade on those who have spent years in Washington with little to show for it.

"I agree that we need secure borders. There's no question about that," Hickenlooper said. "And the frustration with what's going on in Washington is they're kicking the ball back and forth. Secure the borders, make sure whatever law we have doesn't allow children to be snatched from their parents and put in cages. How hard can that be?

"We've got -- I don't know -- on the two debate nights, we've got 170 years of Washington experience. Somehow it seems like that should be fairly fixable."

Warren replied, "Well, and one way to fix it is to decriminalize," she said of border crossings. "That's the whole point."

Sometime in the next year, Democrats will decide on a nominee, but it's hard to imagine them agreeing on the issues, when they're this far apart. Moderate voters in swing stages will decide which pieces to choose from, whether to stick with the Trump roadshow or just sit out the election next year.

If anyone enjoyed the fractious debate, it was Trump.

His Twitter account was silent Tuesday night, however.

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