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Who Won the Third Democratic Debate Last Night? Strategists Weigh In

Former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont delivered fair performances as the top-polling White House contenders at Thursday night’s Democratic debate in Houston, while lower-polling candidates had some breakout moments.

That was the view of Democratic strategists who were hard pressed to single out one candidate as the winner at the 10-candidate debate at Texas Southern University, an historically black school. 

The narrowed field that was winnowed down from 20 appeared to make it easier for the candidates to get messages across. Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, Texas, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey had particularly good nights, strategists said.

“I think basically because nothing dramatic happened, it was a victory for the big three—Biden, Warren and Sanders—who have dominated the polls recently,” veteran Democratic consultant Ed Kilgore told Fortune.

Biden had been hinting all week that he would be aggressive and feisty and he delivered this, Kilgore said, fending off attacks from fellow candidates on health care and one notable attack from former U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro that appeared aimed at his age.

“I thought they all did really well,” veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick told Fortune

Biden “did a pretty good job” but O’Rourke, Klobuchar and Booker “had very good nights,” Carrick said. 

With candidates fighting for polling points, exchanges became heated at times as the conversation wove through racism, gun control, trade and candidates even bickered over their bickering. 

In one of the most heated moments of the night, Castro went after Biden during an exchange on their separate health care plans. Castro, former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, said his own plan does not require people to opt in whereas, he claimed, Biden’s plan does.

Biden countered that his plan does require people to opt in.

“You just said that two minutes ago,” Castro said. “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?

“This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable,” Buttigieg chimed in.

Castro lost points for hinting at questions involving Biden’s memory and age, strategists said. 

“He probably hurt himself and may have really helped the big three,” Kilgore said.

O’Rourke took compliments from several of his Democratic rivals regarding his presence with survivors of the August 3 mass shooting in his home town of El Paso, Texas, that left 22 dead. During an exchange on gun control, he said all parties should be at the table to figure out a solution but that weapons intended for war should not be in the hands of civilians.

“When we see that being used against children … hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”

The discussion will likely create more polling points for O’Rourke, strategists said.

“This was his first display of the ‘new and improved’ Beto and he was good,” Kilgore said, adding on the other hand that O’Rourke may be molding himself into a single-issue candidate.

Said Carrick: “I figured Beto would do OK because of the El Paso shooting, but he did better than OK.”

Harris, the only graduate of an HBCU—Howard University—generated applause several times during the night and had a chance to respond to lingering questions about her tough-on-crime prosecutorial record when she was district attorney for San Francisco and California attorney general.

“I’m glad you asked me this question,” Harris said, going on to explain how she has “always wanted to protect people and keep them safe.”

Harris outlined how she’d created one of the first racial bias trainings in the country for police. She said the program was hailed as “bold and comprehensive.”

“As president of the United States, knowing the system from the inside, I will have the ability to be an effective leader,” she said.

Despite audience reaction, the grading of her political performance by strategists was lukewarm.

“I found her to be a little all over the place tonight,” Carrick said immediately after the debate. “I couldn’t tell what she wanted to do at that debate. It wasn’t clear to me.”

“She had one of the poorest performances of the night,” Kilgore said. “Her manner was just weird and loopy with lots of mistimed laughter. She got better later.”

A final question about resilience drew out what appeared to be some transparency from some of the candidates. Klobuchar told of how hospitals typically put new mothers out 24 hours after they delivered a baby, and she outlined the pain of having to leave her newborn daughter, who was born unable to swallow.

Booker talked of the pain of waging an exhaustive first  campaign for mayor of Newark and having the details outlined in the documentary “Street Fight,” but later winning the seat on his second try. Buttigieg shared details of his decision to come out as gay, expecting repercussions, but then winning reelection as mayor with 80 percent of the vote.

“The bunch of people did OK—better than average,” Kilgore said.

“I thought they all did really well,” Carrick said.

The next Democratic debate is scheduled for October 15 and possible October 16, depending on how many candidates qualify based on number of donors and poll numbers. It will take place somewhere in Ohio.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

Fact checking the third Democratic debate

Highlights from the third Democratic debate

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Candidates clash over healthcare during third Democratic debate

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