It’s halftime in the first big clash of a new season of presidential politics.
Ten Democratic hopefuls took the stage on Wednesday night, invoking a vision of a more diverse and economically balanced America after an era of name-calling and nationalist conservatism under President Donald Trump.
The rest of the party’s crowded 2020 field will follow on Thursday to fire their first shots in their party’s battle to make Trump a one termer.
In round two, the front-runner Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Kamala Harris among others can seize on the opening night’s clashes and big moments to refine their own arguments to forge a dominant early impression in voters’ minds.
Viewers yet to tune into the nascent presidential race but who dipped into the first primary debate saw Washington celebrities they might just recognize and no-hopers they’ve never heard of fighting desperately to keep their 1% campaigns alive.
The meaty issues-driven debate also offered a preview of what political life might look like after Trump. It will be earnest, involve stark policy turns and perhaps be a little dull. And any new Democratic president in 2021 might go out of his way to speak Spanish in public, as several candidates on stage in Miami did.
The stylistic contrast with Trump was struck most effectively by candidates, like Sens. Warren and Amy Klobuchar, vying to become the first woman President and Castro who wants to be the first Latino commander-in-chief.
They personified the question of whether angry white male candidates would be the most effective choice to take on a President who is always on the verge of an outburst. Biden will try to reinforce his argument that despite being from the same demographic group as the President, his experience makes him the most likely Democrat to take Trump down.
There was no one on stage — and there won’t be on Thursday night — to match Trump’s insult-flinging, manic style that broke the mold of how to win the White House and has dragged the nation into an incessant political psychodrama ever since.
“BORING!” was Trump’s tweeted verdict on debate night in Miami, as he flew to Japan on Air Force One.
The President’s political fate might rest on whether enough Americans agree with him or want to return to a quieter, more normal mode of political debate where the biggest divides are on policy and not personal.
The election will also turn on whether the expansive government-led reforms envisaged by the Democratic candidates can attract a majority of electoral votes in a clear change of political direction.
For progressives, the arguments being spelled out on the economy, health care, global warming, gun control are rooted in a strong sense of national morality and are daring.
For more conservative voters they could come across as radical or scary and Trump and his team have plenty of fodder as they seek to portray the Democratic platform as far left socialism.
Perhaps surprisingly, given Trump’s dominance of public life over the last two years, the President took his hits, but he was far from the dominant theme of the first big 2020 moment.
A new phase of the campaign
The twin debates mark a new phase of the campaign and offer the candidates their biggest television audience yet.
They took the stage with fears mounting of war with Iran, with the US locked in a trade war with China and as tragic photos of a father and his 23-month-old daughter drowned in the Rio Grande after a failed attempt to cross the border focused attention on Trump’s hardline immigration policy.
It’s too early to know whether Warren’s steady showing will help her win the nomination or if Castro’s breakout night will vault him into the race’s top tier.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke tried to make a splash by speaking Spanish in his first answer. But he got owned on immigration by Castro in an all Texas-knock down.
First votes are nearly seven months away in the middle of next winter in Iowa, and there will be plenty of winners and losers in the horse race by then. In fact, many candidates on stage Wednesday will likely be gone when the Hawkeye State has its say.
But what is certain is that over two hours on a crowded stage voters saw the ideological divides and the clash over the character of America that will decide the 2020 election.
For the Democrats on stage, the economy is not the roaring success painted by Trump but benefits only the wealthiest Americans and enriches drugs companies while patients struggle.
“Who is the economy really working for, it’s doing great for thinner and thinner slices at the top,” Warren said.
If the next President is a Democrat, it might not be a crime to cross the border illegally. And undocumented migrant children will not be separated from their parents when they do make it to US soil.
Abortion will not be under threat but a guaranteed right.
“There’s three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said.
If New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker gets his way, you might need a federal license to buy a gun.
“I hear gunshots in my neighborhood,” Booker said. “I think I’m the only one, I hope I am the only one that had seven people shot in their neighborhood just last week.”
Democratic post-Trump America would fight climate change, not call it a hoax.
“(Trump) says wind turbines cause cancer, we know they cause jobs,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is an after-thought in most polls.
While there’s a chance that everyone can get health care, it might mean that private health plans will have to go.
“Private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a recent entrant into the race said.
Discord on this issue among the candidates hinted at the great fault line in the Democratic Party between its progressive wing and contenders like Klobuchar who believe the middle ground is the best way to dispense with Trump.
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan pleaded with his fellow candidates to adopt a working man’s politics that could help combat Trump in his Midwest heartlands.
“I don’t know how you feel but I am ready to play some offense,” Ryan said.
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who drew on her military service to introduce herself to many voters for the first time, ended the debate invoking an idealized version of a new America.
“As President, our White House, our White House will be a beacon of light, providing hope and opportunity,” she said.
Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, who has been running for months unnoticed by most Americans who are not Democratic activists, took a pragmatic stance on the health care question.
“I think we should be the party that keeps what’s working and fixes what’s broken,” he said.
What no one can know, is if there was a President on stage on Wednesday night — or if there will be on Thursday. The question of how best to confront Trump in his element on a debate stage is for another day.
But it’s already obvious that Americans are going to have a distinct political choice come November 2020.