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Presidential Contenders Use Primary Debate To Try To Highlight Differences


Put 10 Democratic presidential candidates on a single stage and you challenge all of them to say why they are unique.


BERNIE SANDERS: I am the only person up here...

CORY BOOKER: I think I'm the only person on this stage, even though...

KAMALA HARRIS: I am on - and I think the only person on this stage...

ELIZABETH WARREN: I think I'm the only person on this stage who...

JOE BIDEN: I'm the only one up here who's ever beat the NRA.

INSKEEP: So we've established that each candidate was the only one to do something, and the contest on ABC did highlight some genuine differences. While it's hard to say that anybody won a debate so far ahead of the voting, we can learn something about those differences. So we've called up a couple of viewers. Republican strategist Scott Jennings was watching in Prospect, Ky. Welcome back to the program.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Thank you. Good morning.

INSKEEP: And we're also joined by Democratic strategist Jennifer Palmieri, who was watching in Missoula, Mont. Good morning.

JENNIFER PALMIERI: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And, guys, I think it's fitting that you both know Washington really well, but you're both way outside Washington where sometimes the same image on the same TV screen can just look or feel different. And, Jennifer, let's start with you. What sounded like it would play well in Missoula?

PALMIERI: I do think that Joe Biden sounded like he would play well in Missoula. You know, the - my big takeaway from the debate was that if you want to beat Biden, you're going to have to do it on the ground in Iowa. I think people thought there might be a debate where he really performs badly, and, you know, people are looking for a moment where his support starts to collapse. And I think it's kind of evident at this point that's unlikely to happen. And debates are interesting, but we have to keep in mind they're all headed to Iowa. And that was my big takeaway was that's where you're going to have to - that's where you're going to have to beat him.

INSKEEP: So Biden, who's been the front-runner in polls, held it together. How did look from Kentucky, Scott?

JENNINGS: Yeah. I have a similar sentiment as Jen. I think that nobody in this debate, or, frankly, any other debate, had a moment that drains support away from the rest of the crowd. So that means you have to build a real campaign organizationally to turn out the people that are for you. Biden's, you know, bebopping along at 30%. I don't think he's going to go up or down. Warren and Sanders are still fishing off the same pier. They're fragmenting that wing of the party. And nobody is really moving fast. So at this point, I don't know that we learn much from the debates. What I'm more anxious to find out now is, are they actually building campaigns to turn out the voters who support them? Nobody's got a dominant lead. So it's all really coming down to campaign tactics. And can you get out what you've got?

INSKEEP: Biden bebopping - I guess that's political consultant jargon.

JENNINGS: (Laughter) To his record player, to his record player.

INSKEEP: Oh, he did make a reference to people, and we could have a big discussion about that. That was a discussion about race. He was saying that he encouraged parents to be playing records to their kids. We could discuss that, but let's discuss health care for a moment if we can. We have Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren standing on either side of Biden. Sanders and Warren both favor "Medicare for All." Biden kept saying that is too expensive, and he highlighted his support of Obamacare. Let's listen.


BIDEN: I think - I know that the senator says she's for Bernie. Well, I'm for Barack. I think the Obamacare worked. I think the way in - we add to it, replace everything that's been cut, add a public option, guarantee that everyone will be able to have affordable insurance.

INSKEEP: OK, guys. Biden suggests, look, your taxes are going to go up in this Medicare for All scheme. The others are saying, look, your overall costs are going to go down. Let me just ask you - what are the politics of each argument? Scott, you first.

JENNINGS: Well, the politics here are, for Republicans, when you hear the more radical health care plans, what we hear is we're coming to raise your taxes. I mean, if you hear the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren plans and the more radical plans in the field, we just hear about massive tax increases and losing your private insurance. I thought it was noteworthy that the more not-socialist candidates in the field were more critical of the Medicare for All plans last night. But what we see across the board is just plans to raise taxes, take away private insurance and really change - radically change health care in a system where, frankly, most people like the plan that they currently have.

INSKEEP: Jen Palmieri, having been in a White House that struggled with the health care issue, to say the least - politically struggled with it - is it wise for Democrats to be going for such big change in an election they're desperate to win?

PALMIERI: Well, you know, both Biden and then - on one side and Warren and Sanders on the other, are going for different voters within the Democratic primary electorate. And Warren and Sanders are going for the voters that are looking for very big change, and Biden is going for the voters who want to beat Trump as their No. 1 priority.

And I think what - you know, Warren is the really interesting one here. And besides Biden, she's the one who impressed me the most last night. She continues to play her own game. And other than that one time with Biden that you just played, people didn't really try to go after her. And she's had a slow and steady but very steady rise. And no one's really been able to disrupt that yet. And she could end up being as a real force. And not everyone in the Democratic primary electorate is where she is on health care. But there is, you know, a sizable enough amount of voters that that's what they are looking for.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, do you worry about someone like Warren making an argument that works in the primaries and doesn't work in November of 2020?

PALMIERI: Well, that, my friend, is the story of Democratic presidential primaries from the very beginning. And this is the process by which - the primary process is the process by which the Democrats decide where they stand on the biggest issues and who they want that standard bearer to be. And, you know, sometimes that makes our case more difficult in the general election, but that is what this process is about. But she does continue to impress me with how - you know, running your own race and not getting dragged in to debates that you don't want to have, it's a tough skill, and she's got it.

INSKEEP: Scott Jennings, did any of the trailing candidates a little bit lower in the polls make an impression on you?

JENNINGS: Yeah. I was watching Beto O'Rourke last night. I don't think he's got a chance to get the nomination, but he is moving the field further left on the gun issue just the way Warren and Sanders are moving the field left on health care. So to your point and your question to Jen, I'm anxious to see if he stays in long enough to continue to move that field far away from where most people are, which is probably for some kind of gun reform but not for the government showing up and confiscating your guns, which is now the motivating issue for the Beto campaign.

INSKEEP: Oh, which is what O'Rourke said. He said I will take your AK-47 away. Jen Palmieri, did anybody at the bottom end impress you, very briefly?

PALMIERI: Harris. You know, Harris had memorable lines - can be just that, just memorable lines from the debate if they don't translate into rise in the polls in Iowa. But I thought Harris had a particularly great opening in her direct - that she directed directly at Trump. I thought that was very effective.

INSKEEP: And also compared the president to the Wizard of Oz at one point. Jen Palmieri, thanks so much.

PALMIERI: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: She was communications director for the Hillary Clinton campaign, served in the Obama White House. Scott Jennings was an adviser in the George W. Bush White House. Thanks to you.

JENNINGS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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