ATLANTA — Voters bracing for fierce candidate-on-candidate fights, with just weeks to go before the first Democratic presidential primary votes are cast, might have been surprised by the action on stage here Wednesday night: the politician who got hit most often — nearly twice as much as the entire field combined — was President Donald Trump.
With the field of candidates narrowing, a four-person race has emerged at the top, but the pack of candidates in the low-single digits is still fighting to keep their presidential ambitions alive — though not as much as expected with each other. In their fifth debate, the candidates appeared more comfortable on stage, with sharper talking points, quicker timing, and more moments of comic relief.
Here is a look at who held their ground, who made a bid to break out from the pack, and whose presidential hopes may be on the ropes:
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg: He recently grabbed the lead among Iowa Democrats — but his rivals made little attempt to chip away at that momentum. (At least, his Democratic rivals: the Trump campaign sent out an email during the debate titled "Fact Check: Pete Buttigieg’s South Bend Record of Failure.") Buttigieg sought to defend both his efforts to appeal to black voters and his relatively thin political resume, making a strong pitch for the Washington outsider mantle. “What goes on in my city might look small, but from where I live, the infighting on Capitol Hill looks small," he said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden: Biden, who has battled softening poll numbers, lacked a stand-out moment on stage. He largely stuck to a familiar argument: that he is the contender best positioned to beat Trump, based on his appeal to moderates and his experience. "You have to ask yourself, up here who is most likely to be able to win the nomination in the first place, to win the presidency in the first place? And secondly, who is most likely to increase the number of people who are Democrats in the House and in the Senate?" he said.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.: Fighting to keep his candidacy alive, Booker had one of his strongest debate performances, commanding a bigger share of speaking time than in past faceoffs. He took the opportunity to remind voters of his experience outside of Washington, "I'm happy to be the other Rhodes Scholar mayor on this stage," he said, in a reference to Buttigieg. He also had a warning for the other candidates when it comes to appealing to black voters, calling out Biden for his recently re-stated opposition to immediately legalizing marijuana: "I thought you might have been high when you said it. Marijuana is already legal for privileged people, and the war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.: Klobuchar has fought to position herself as a moderate alternative to voters concerned by Biden's inconsistent debate performances and the more progressive policies of Warren and Sanders. In a reference to Buttigieg's rise, she had one of her strongest moments of the night, arguing that "women are held to a higher standard — otherwise we could play a game called 'name your favorite women president,' which we can't do, because it has all been men."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.: Warren was again on the defensive over her "Medicare for all" health care plan that would eventually eliminate private insurance, but came under less fire than in past debates from the more moderate candidates. Then again, that relative lack of attacks gave her fewer attempts to shine on the stage and show how she could hold her own against Trump.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.: He's been neck-and-neck with Warren for several months, but once again avoided lobbing any blows at his fellow progressive candidate. Sanders stuck to his key talking points on overhauling the health care system and pulling out of foreign conflicts, but covered little new ground.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.: She was given a change to take a jab at Buttigieg's failure to connect with black voters, but pivoted instead to the wider issue of failed race relations in America — saving her biggest attack for Tulsi Gabbard, accusing the congresswoman from Hawaii of having worked against the Democratic Party over the past four years. The California senator made the case that she could win because she could "rebuild the Obama coalition" of women, black and working class voters.
Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang: The proponent of a universal basic income had the least amount of speaking time, but got some of the biggest laugh lines of the night: When asked what he would say in his first conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin if elected president, he replied: "I'm sorry I beat your guy."
Businessman Tom Steyer: The billionaire businessman tried to distinguish himself by saying he's the only candidate who would make climate change his number one issue in the White House, declaring a "climate emergency" on day one of his presidency.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii: She's lobbed attacks at unexpected targets in past debates, and this one was no different: this time targeting Buttigieg this time over his support for U.S. military cooperation with Mexico to fight the cartels. Buttigieg battled back, attacking her judgment over her decision to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.