Democrats' presidential candidate debate: Who the pundits say won

Over-rehearsed, charming, fine and rousing - these are the words used to describe the performance of several Democrats in Wednesday night's debate between wannabe presidential nominees. 

The first Democratic debate of the decade was largely overshadowed by a rift between Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders. Warren, earlier this week, said Sanders once told her a woman could not win the 2020 presidency, something Sanders vehemently rejects ever saying.

But with only three weeks until the first Democrat vote in Iowa, candidates needed to make an impression. There are no clear frontrunners, and incumbent Donald Trump's military actions and upcoming impeachment trial are giving him extensive publicity - for better or for worse. 

Here's what commentators are saying about the six candidates who pitched themselves to the US on Wednesday, and who they believe aced the debate: 

Chris Cillizza - CNN's editor-at-large: 

Cillizza split the six candidates into winners and losers. In the winners' corner was Pete Buttigieg AKA Mayor Pete, Warren, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.

He said Buttigieg "showed a competency, steadiness and depth of knowledge coupled with personal experience" and spoke "powerfully" about his problems with Trump's approach to Iran.

Pete Buttigieg.
Pete Buttigieg. Photo credit: Getty.

Warren was applauded by Cillizza as having the "line of the night" in which she said the four men in the debate had lost ten political races, while she and Klobuchar had never lost a race. 

"It's an effective pushback against the idea that she is too liberal to beat Trump," the CNN writer said.

Elizabeth Warren.
Elizabeth Warren. Photo credit: Getty.

Klobuchar, Cillizza said, should be "broadly happy" with her performance, having shown herself as a "pragmatic alternative" to Joe Biden, one of the more moderate Democrats in the race.

Biden, Sanders and billionaire businessman Tom Steyer were Cillizza's losers.

Biden, the former vice-President, "seemed to forget or misstate a point" - a "halting performance" - while Sanders was too dismissive of Warren's claim.

Steyer - arguably the least well-known of the candidates, at least internationally - "looked badly out of his depth", according to Cillizza. 

"He struggled badly to make the case that he was better equipped than his rivals to manage the country's foreign policy. His answer amounted to the fact that he has travelled a lot internationally.

"For most of the debate, it felt like the Top 5 were involved in one conversation and Steyer was just, well, there."

Tom Steyer.
Tom Steyer. Photo credit: Getty.

The New York Times opinion group

The New York newspaper averages the scores its contributors gave to the candidates to come up with a ranking.

At the top of the list was Warren, who scored an average score of 7.2/10.

"A substantive candidate, even if her position on the trade agreement between the United States and Mexico is not very credible," said Mexico's former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda. Times columnist Michelle Goldberg agreed with Cillizza that she had the best line of the night, while campaign strategist Liz Mair doesn't think many people believe her claim about Sanders.

Sanders, the Vermont Senator, came in a close second with 7.1/10. Columnist Gail Collins said he "isn't the most appealing" but did have some "rousing moments". Collins' colleague Maureen Dowd agreed. 

"Waving his arms with the flair of a maestro, Sanders dominated the stage, didn't give any ground on his give-away programmes and stared down Warren over her claim that he had told her that a woman couldn't win," she said.

He was criticised by Peter Wehner, who previously served in Republican administrations. "Curmudgeonly, loud, deeply ideological, a rock star to his base but unattractive to pretty much everyone else."

Bernie Sanders.
Bernie Sanders. Photo credit: Getty.

Next on the rankings was Klobuchar (6.6/10), described as "substantive" by Castañeda, "charming" by Goldberg, and a "foreign-policy lightweight" by Daniel McCarthy, the editor of a conservative journal.

"She should be the moderate's choice, but she sounds senatorial, not presidential. She's good on the ins and outs of legislation but often fails to tell a bigger story," said academic Nicole Hemmer. 

Joe Biden was on 6.2/10. 

"He didn't screw up!" was Collins' first comment. Biden performing as a moderate, plain and uninspiring candidate was a sentiment throughout the contributors' assessments. 

"He's a shadow of the man who we knew just four or eight years ago. At the most pointed moments of the debate, he seemed to disappear," said writer Hector Tobar. 

"He wasn't dominant or terribly impressive, but he didn't make any damaging errors," added Wehner. 

Joe Biden.
Joe Biden. Photo credit: Getty.

While one of Cillizza's winners, Buttigieg came second-to-last in the Times' rankings. 

Scoring 6.1/10, the former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was overly rehearsed and scripted, according to Hemmer and Castañeda. Collins said he had some of the best arguments but came across as "a really, really smart high school debater".

"Strong but not outstanding. He told some humanising stories, he's future-oriented and he's the only Democrat who isn't afraid to talk about his faith," said Wehner.

Finally, Steyer achieved an average score of 4.6/10. 

Collins gave him a dreadful 2/10 - saying: "We have a better billionaire" - while Goldberg said he was "fine" and questioned while he was there. Others praised his advocacy for climate change action. 

"He's growing into his candidacy, but I don't see him breaking out of the pack to become the nominee. Secretary of climate?" said Texas Monthly executive editor Mimi Swartz.


Poll analysis website FiveThirtyEight partnered with Ipsos to poll a group of voters before and after the debate.

Going into the debate, Warren had a 65.9 percent favourability with the voters, and was given a 3.4/4 debate performance grade. She also picked up the most potential voters between the two polls. 

Sanders had the second-best debate performance, according to the voters, with a 3.1/4 score. He came in under Warren, despite better pre-debate favourability (68.2 percent). 

Biden also had a higher pre-debate favourability (66.8 percent), but was given a 3/4 score for his debating performance. That was the same as Buttigieg whose earlier favourability was 60.3 percent.

Klobuchar and Steyer both scored 2.9/4 and languished behind in the pre-debate favourability with 54 percent and 52.8 percent, respectively. 

Amy Klobuchar.
Amy Klobuchar. Photo credit: Getty.

James Oliphant - Reuters

Oliphant gave his thoughts on the candidates' performances, summing each up with a "bottom line". 

  • "Biden's ship stayed on course."
  • "Sanders may face questions about his appeal to women."
  • "Warren is making a high-stakes bet on gender."
  • "Buttigieg got a pass."
  • "[Klobuchar had a] strong night, but likely not enough."
  • "[Steyer was] still at the big-kids table. For now."