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Who won the debate?

Here are our ‘awards’ for Thursday’s three-hour bonanza.
Democratic primary voters finally got to see Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren on the same stage. But the fireworks many expected between the former vice president and the Massachusetts senator never materialized.
With the field whittled down to a still-less-than-manageable 10 candidates on one stage, ABC News billed the debate as a heavyweight clash.
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After a lengthy but civil back-and-forth between Warren and Bernie Sanders in the Medicare for All corner, and Biden and most of the other candidates in the more-incremental corner — the debate moved on to other issues. And with the change of subject came a near-total dissipation of the long-awaited tension between Biden and Warren.
Julián Castro, desperate for a campaign-changing moment, took it to Biden — but the former vice president didn’t take the bait. Warren displayed her usual command of the issues and ease with the format — and mostly went unchallenged by her competitors.
Three-hour debates don’t always have clear winners and losers. If anything changed Thursday night, it may prove to be the reemergence of Beto O’Rourke.
Here are some superlatives from the third Democratic debate (one night only!):
Most Improved Debater: Beto O’Rourke
The former Texas congressman is weeks into his second campaign reboot, but this one may have staying power. Already before the debate, there were signs O’Rourke — who has refocused his campaign on taking on President Donald Trump and gun control — on a slight upswing. A new CNN/SSRS poll out Tuesday showed O’Rourke at 5 percent among Democrats nationally — the first time he reached that threshold in a debate-qualifying poll since late May.
While he was sheepish in the two previous debates about injecting himself into each issue, O’Rourke wouldn’t let himself get lost on the stage on Thursday night.
O’Rourke is taking some significant long-term risks — campaigning on mandatory buybacks for assault weapons, for instance. But he’s newly relevant in the race for the Democratic nomination after plummeting in the polls over the summer.
Most Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde: Joe Biden
The good Biden showed up for the first 30 minutes of the debate. He pointedly defended his health care plan and drew meaningful contrasts with Warren. “I know the senator says she’s for Bernie,” he said. “Well, I’m for Barack.”
While he jabbed at Warren (and Sanders), he mostly shrugged off attacks from the low-polling Castro, who appeared to obfuscate on Biden’s health care plan.
But as the debate wore on, Biden was uneven. He gave a rambling answer about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said all non-violent criminals shouldn’t go to jail. He talked about record players.
His word salads and grandpa moments have, over the first two debates, been baked into voters’ perceptions of Biden — and his stronger moments Thursday night might overshadow those rough patches. But as voting nears and the stakes rise, will voters take a second look at whether Biden is up to the job of taking on Trump?
Most Eager to Fast-Forward to the General Election: Kamala Harris
Harris went after Trump from the get-go. She directed her opening statement at the president, whom she said would undoubtedly be watching. (He wasn’t, since he was addressing the House GOP retreat in Baltimore.)
On health care, she brought it back to Trump. “Frankly, I think this discussion has given the American public a headache,” she said, urging her fellow Democrats to focus on the “end goal” of ousting Trump from the White House. “If we don’t get Donald Trump out of office, he’s going to get rid of all of it.”
Asked later about how her trade policy might differ from former President Barack Obama’s, Harris picked another target. “Well, first of all, I have no criticism of that, more than just looking at where we are now,” she said, “which is we’ve got a guy in the White House who has been erratic on trade policy. He conducts trade policy by tweet, frankly born out of his fragile ego.”
Cringiest Line (Debate Site Category): Amy Klobuchar
The debate was held at Texas Southern University, a historically black college in the state’s largest city, Houston.
That’s the context for the reference by Sen. Amy Klobuchar in her opening statement, calling back to the movie “Apollo 13,” which chronicled the ill-fated lunar mission in 1970.
“Now, I may not be the loudest person up here, but I think we’ve already got that in the White House,” the Minnesota senator said. “Houston, we have a problem. This — we have a guy there that is literally running our country like a game show.”
Cringiest Line (Ethnic Joke Category): Andrew Yang
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang has made his mark on the debate stage touting his universal basic income proposal.
On Thursday, he segued into a different topic — health care — with an awkward one-liner.
“I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors,” he said. “And they tell me that they spend a lot of time on paperwork, avoiding being sued and navigating the insurance bureaucracy.”
Mr. Rabbit Ears: George Stephanopoulos
Later in her answer on trade, Harris compared Trump to the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. “You know, he reminds me of that guy in ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” she said. “When you pull back the curtain, it’s a really small dude.”
George Stephanopoulos — the former Bill Clinton spokesman-turned-morning TV star — obviously has a heightened (get it?) sensitivity about short jokes, stammering, “Ok. I’m not even going to take the bait, Sen. Harris.”
But it was clear Harris wasn’t making fun of Stephanopoulos’ stature; he’s reportedly 5-foot-7.
“It wasn’t about you!” she said.
Most in Need of a Throat Lozenge: Bernie Sanders
The Vermonter only has one volume: loud. It’s a key part of his appeal and authenticity.
But on Thursday night, his voice was a little worse for wear, scratchier than usual. Still, it survived all the way through the three-hour debate — which Sanders ended, fittingly, by talking about his political resilience.
Father of the Year: Andrew Yang
Yang earns his second superlative for his answer to a question about his support for charter schools — not exactly a popular position in the Democratic primary.
“Let me be clear,” he said. “I am pro-good school. I’ve got a kid — one of my little boys just started public school last week. And I was not there because I was running for president. So, we need to pay teachers more, because the data clearly shows that a good teacher is worth his or her weight in gold.”