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A Report Card for Every Candidate From the First Democratic Debates

From all A’s to WTF, our consolidated scorecard for the 20 presidential hopefuls in Miami

Kamala Harris and Julián Castro aced the test in Miami.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images; Michele Eve Sandberg/Shutterstock

After two nights, four hours, and 20 candidates, the first Democratic debate of the 2020 presidential campaign is in the bag. While a handful of competitors shined onstage in Miami, many more had nights they’d rather forget. 

Below is our consolidated report card from the big show in South Florida:

Kamala Harris: A

Harris dominated the Miami debates. She spoke with precision and passion, but most important, she proved she could take the fight to the frontrunner, bloody her opponent, and emerge nearly unscathed. If Democrats are looking for a gladiator to send into battle against Trump, Harris has an edge.

Julián Castro: A

Showing the political chops that put him in the mix for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running-mate, Castro shined on the first night of the debate. For a campaign that has struggled to gain traction, Castro’s battle with Beto O’Rourke over decriminalizing immigration offenses created a breakthrough moment. Can he keep up the momentum and solidify his status as a first-tier candidate?

Elizabeth Warren: A-

We’re sorry Warren did not share the stage with Biden, with whom she’s long battled over the consumer abuses by credit card companies. Warren delivered an energetic performance, mixing technocratic expertise and heart, while largely avoiding combat. She proved why she deserved to be centerstage but didn’t run away with the show.

Bernie Sanders: B+

Bernie was vintage Bernie. He clearly articulated a now-familiar vision about leading a revolution against entrenched corporate and Wall Street power, while suffering only a few glancing blows from opponents. Oddly: He didn’t lay a finger on Biden (although he did nearly poke him in the eye). 

Pete Buttigieg: B+

The South Bend mayor was passionate and eloquent as usual, dunking on the religious right for their moral bankruptcy in the face of our government throwing child migrants into filthy cages. But his consultant-speak was tiresome, as when he argued for a Medicare plan that would create “a very natural glide path to the single-payer environment.” More substantively, he continues to be challenged by his record on race relations in South Bend. 

Cory Booker: B

Booker didn’t come out punching; in fact, he spent much of the night agreeing with others onstage. But he made a favorable impression, particularly connecting abstract policy concerns to his lived experience, as with the problem of gun violence in his neighborhood in Newark.

Bill de Blasio: B

The New York City mayor, towering at the left end of the stage on Wednesday, came prepared for battle, taking Beto O’Rourke to task for defending private insurance, for example. Without Bernie on stage, Hizzoner was able to lay claim to many of the party’s most progressive ideas: “Yes, we’re supposed to be for a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthy,” he said. “Yes, we’re supposed to be for free college, free public college, for our young people. We are supposed to break up big corporations when they’re not serving our democracy.”

Eric Swalwell: B

No one was expecting much from Swalwell going into Thursday night’s debate, but the California congressman running on gun safety was surprisingly vocal, and even got in a solid jab at Biden. His message of “passing the torch” to the next generation is powerful, but his canned one-liners were corny: “My first act in foreign policy? We’re breaking up with Russia and making up with NATO.”

Tulsi Gabbard: B

Sometimes all it takes is one memorable moment to swing a debate in your favor, and Gabbard got it on Wednesday night when she sparred with Tim Ryan over whether to pull troops out of Afghanistan. When the congressman from Ohio argued that the U.S. needs to remain “engaged” overseas, Gabbard shot back: “Is that what you will tell the parents of those two soldiers who were just killed in Afghanistan? Well, we just have to be engaged?” she asked. “As a soldier, I will tell you, that answer is unacceptable.”

Kirsten Gillibrand: B-

Gillibrand stuck to prepared talking points and delivered them cleanly. Some viewers may have chafed at her attempted interruptions, but the New York senator did what she had to do to get precious airtime for a campaign that has, so far, underwhelmed.

Jay Inslee: B-

Inslee, the self-proclaimed climate change candidate, got the least amount of speaking time on the first night. But in the time he had, he spoke powerfully about the need for a president who will do “everything humanly possible” to protect future generations from the ravages of the climate crisis, and even got a lick in at the president, calling Trump America’s gravest geopolitical threat.

Amy Klobuchar: C+

The Minnesota senator had a lackluster performance marred by a terrible answer on race relations. When moderator Rachel Maddow asked her, “What have you done for black and Latino voters that should enthuse them about going to the polls for you if you’re your party’s nominee?” Klobuchar offered no specifics, suggesting only: “My life and my career and my work in the Senate has been about economic opportunity.”

John Hickenlooper: C

Hickenlooper played himself up as a man of accomplishments, insisting that as Colorado governor he achieved much of what the rest of the Democratic field is pledging to do. But he strangely staked out his candidacy as a reaction to Republican attacks and fear-mongering: “If we don’t clearly define that we are not socialists,” he said, “the Republicans are going to come at us every way they can and call us socialists.” (Note to Hick: The GOP will call you a socialist regardless.)

Michael Bennet: C-

Bennet, a senator from Colorado with a low national profile, offered a flavorless introduction to Democratic voters. His grade would be lower except that he landed one clean blow on Biden, calling nonsense on the idea that the vice president had bested Republicans in the 2010 deal that extended the majority of the Bush tax cuts. “We lost that economic argument,” he said. “That was a great deal for Mitch McConnell.”

Beto O’Rourke: C-

With his campaign dead in the water, Beto came into the debate needing to rekindle the spark that made him a national sensation in his battle against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Instead, despite a few highlights speaking Spanish, O’Rourke got doused with cold water. He was on the losing end of painful confrontations with Julián Castro, who told him to do his “homework” on immigration reform, and even Bill de Blasio, who raked him over the coals for his timidity in confronting the health insurance industry.

Andrew Yang: C-

Reddit’s favorite candidate started off shakily — the first words he uttered Thursday night were “I’m sorry?” after not hearing the question — and then largely disappeared. In fact, Yang uttered a measly 594 words, the fewest of any candidate in either debate. Yang’s not shy, brimming with ideas and cheeky catchphrases, and the first debate should’ve been his breakout moment. Instead, he receded into the background in what was a disappointing national debut.

Joe Biden: D+

The frontrunner in the polls who has been coasting on his name recognition and America’s nostalgia for the Obama years, Biden struggled through his first primetime performance of 2020. He jumbled his sentences and often seemed grateful for the limits of the debate clock, like a winded boxer eager for the bell between rounds. In sum, Biden seemed brittle. Instead of absorbing the expected attacks from other candidates with humility, he got angry, biting back at Kamala Harris for calling out his record on school bussing. He would have done better with a simple apology.

John Delaney: D

Delaney may be the hardest worker in the field — he’s been campaigning for going on two years now. But it takes more than elbow grease to resonate with voters, and the former Maryland congressman just didn’t have the charisma to make an impression in Miami. His strident stance as a moderate — which included attacks on Medicare-for-All — isn’t doing him any favors, either.

Tim Ryan: D-

With the stage presence of a bewildered fraternity brother, Ryan fell flat during his first turn behind a podium on Wednesday night. He stumbled his way through his responses, most notably when he capped an argument that the U.S. needs to keep troops in Afghanistan by seeming to confuse whether the Taliban or Al Qaeda was responsible for 9/11.

Marianne Williamson: WTF

We’re not sure what to make of Williamson’s performance on Thursday night. Speaking with a lilting mid-century accent, the self-help guru made a series of bizarre points and references, ultimately arguing that love, not policy, will be the key to defeating Trump next November. Though some will dismiss her as too out-there to be taken seriously as a candidate, her first turn behind the podium got people talking, which is what any longshot campaign needs most.

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