Since the first round of Democratic presidential debates in June, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has mounted a steady climb up the polls without ever having the opportunity to directly confront front-runner Joe Biden, thanks to the large field previously split over multiple nights.
Thursday night at Texas Southern University in Houston there were few direct verbal skirmishes between the two candidates attempting to separate themselves from the pack, but contrasting styles and policy points were revealed during the three-hour event.
Pitting Warren and Biden head-to-head reflects a larger question for Democratic voters in 2020: Is defeating President Donald Trump top of mind, or a more widespread shift in the party platform and direction of the country?
Biden’s pitch has centered on expanding on the work of President Barack Obama while Warren, similar to Sen. Bernie Sanders, is championing a slate of programs that would fundamentally shift numerous institutions, from abolishing the Electoral College to ending private prisons and buttressing Social Security.
Warren has been the most upwardly mobile candidate in the polls in the past three months making consistent, incremental gains. While others enjoyed some short-lived spikes in favor, Warren has steadily grown her share from 9% to 19%, according to Real Clear Politics polling averages for the Democratic nomination. Sanders meanwhile has remained roughly stagnant at 17% and Biden has seen a 3 percentage point dip to 30%.
With her campaign momentum building, Warren did not go out of her way to challenge Biden or Sanders Thursday. Warren stayed on message, choosing to highlight her own specific plans rather than dig into opponents’ ideas. Biden at times came off as less polished in his answers, veering from topic to topic within a single issue, but also focused on nuances within his own positions.
One key difference between Biden and both Warren and Sanders is the former vice president stops short of calling for the end of private health insurance while the latter two fully endorse Medicare for All. Biden said his plan maintains choice but offers Medicare coverage to those who want it, while pushing Sanders and Warren on the costs and accompanying tax increases of Medicare for All.
“Nobody has said how much it will cost,” Biden said.
Warren countered that abolishing private insurance would eliminate profit and drive down costs for everyone, allowing families to spend less on care in the end.
“I’ve never actually met anyone who likes their health insurance company … what they want is access to health care,” she said.
The other area of disagreement between the top polling candidates was the filibuster. While Warren adamantly made the case to abolish the procedure in Congress, Sanders and Biden reject the move.
Raising the example of firearm regulation, Warren said Congress is “beholden to the gun industry.”
“Unless we’re willing to address that head on and roll back the filibuster, we’re not going to get anything done on guns,” she said.
Warren’s strengthening position in polls did not appear to elicit extra attention from the other candidates trailing behind in the single digits. The most notable confrontations came when Julian Castro called out Biden on more than one occasion, including accusing him of only embracing President Barack Obama’s record when it’s convenient.
“Everytime something good about Barack Obama comes up, he says: ‘Oh, I was there … me too!’” Castro said. “And then anytime somebody questions part of the administration we were both a part of he says: ‘Well that was the president.’ I mean, he wants to take credit for Obama’s work but not have to answer any questions.”
Like many of the candidates on stage, Warren and Biden agreed on numerous issues surrounding education, climate change, gun control, and ending U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan.
Biden has consistently promoted the idea that he is the best positioned candidate to defeat Trump. Eroding that argument, a recent CBS News/YouGov poll showed Warren also gaining in her perceived ability to win against the incumbent. In June, 39% of respondents who said they would consider voting for Warren thought she would probably defeat Trump. In September’s poll, that number rose to 55%.
In terms of early-primary states, Warren slightly nudges out Biden in New Hampshire with 27% support versus 26%, with Sanders close behind at 25%. Biden leads polls in Iowa with 29%, compared to Sanders at 25% and Warren at 17%.
While the third Democratic debate never delivered major fireworks between the front runners, the pattern so far has shown that steady, incremental gains can be more lasting. After Sen. Kamala Harris’ strong performance in the first debate, where she challenged Biden on school desegregation, she doubled her polling numbers before falling back to 7% prior to Thursday night.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—Highlights from the third Democratic debate
—Houston hopes Thursday’s Democratic debate at historically black university drives conversation
—Black women voters are key to the 2020 presidential race. Here's who they support