The fifth democratic primary debate showed that a cull is too late


IF THE winnowing would only go faster. For the fifth televised Democratic debate broadcast from Georgia, ten candidates dutifully took the stage, each behind a dazzlingly lit lectern. They all competed to be heard, to get a rehearsed but convenient line to be shared by supporters on social media, then begged for online donations to keep them going for another month. Each took turns explaining why he or she would do best to beat Donald Trump before somehow “healing” the nation. It was mostly a thoughtful display, but there were few fireworks. The two-hour debate covered an admirably wide range of topics. Yet the Democrats’ on-screen performance seems increasingly divorced from the real world.

In reality, only four candidates dominate the Democratic race. Judging by polls, fundraising, betting, press coverage and so on, that pack looked unchanged for months. Joe Biden, despite not raising much money recently, and Elizabeth Warren remain the front runners. Both played the night cautiously and were relatively subdued; neither had dealt a serious blow to the other, despite speculation that Biden would strike hard against Ms. Warren’s healthcare plans. Mr Biden only briefly showed some vim by attacking China and Saudi Arabia as human rights abusers. Both candidates came out of the night largely unscathed.

Bernie Sanders, despite his heart attack, maintains a solid core of support. He said nothing new that would extend his appeal beyond the far-left party. Pete Buttigieg, by far the youngest of the Gang of Four, also holds his own. A recent wave of poll hopefuls in early states — especially Iowa, where he appears to be leading — bodes well for his campaign. He put on an excellent debate performance and spoke with energy. Surprisingly, given his rising profile, he took few strong attacks from the others. They might have pushed him harder to address his issues by appealing to black voters or his limited national experience. Perhaps wary of his obvious counter-punching ability, most chose to play it safe.

Go way beyond those four, though, and it’s not clear why the party drags on these large-scale auditions. After the Georgia debate, it’s impossible (if not already) to take seriously that Tulsi Gabbard could ever be the Democrats’ choice. At one point, she fell into a bizarre argument with Mr. Buttigieg, who claimed he had a plan to send US soldiers to fight drug cartels in Mexico. Tom Steyer’s grizzled presence was barely noticeable, except during a brief conversation (with Mr. Biden) about who cared most about climate change. Even if he and others were worthy, they show no signs of coming from a distant similarly run category. Cory Booker speaks well on many topics, including racial reconciliation. Andrew Yang talked about China’s AI threat and made a funny statement about Vladimir Putin’s meddling in US politics. Yet millions of television viewers have now heard them speak in a series of lengthy debates. They said nothing to indicate that their fortunes would suddenly increase.

Two candidates from the lower echelons did have a good night. Amy Klobuchar found her voice in ways she’d previously struggled to do, such as discussing abortion and women’s rights. The Minnesotan tries to present himself as a Midwestern centrist figure with a record of winning elections, who brings more experience than Mr. Buttigieg. Maybe she’ll get some traction. Kamala Harris also came across as calm and forceful, especially when she talked about foreign policy and joked that Mr. Trump had been “bullied” by North Korea’s dictator. She was livelier than she has been for a while, though her campaign has struggled to garner donors or popular support. A short wave in early summer is now a distant memory.

Among the leaders, Georgia’s lack of drama probably stood out best with the two centrists – Messrs. Biden and Buttigieg. In the first debates, which began in June, there was a lot of radical talk about abolishing borders, abolishing immigration enforcement and rolling out free medical care for all. None of these men looked comfortable at the time, as candidates competed to appear as the most progressive figure possible. Instead, Mrs. Warren’s popularity soared. But such talk threatened to scare off independent and middle-class voters and has since faded. In this debate, and beyond, the conversation was more about pragmatic questions, such as how the Democrats might try to take control of the Senate, which requires moderates not to be frightened, especially in rural and suburban places. The Iowa caucuses are less than three months away. There will be more televised debates before then, but voters will begin the real winnowing in February.

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