Two candidates wound up with more speaking time than Ms Warren: Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator and a gifted orator who used his time well, and Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman and a brief heart-throb of primary voters, who did not. Asked a first question about whether he would support marginal tax rates as high as 70%, Mr O’Rourke decided to start discussing the economy in Spanish. In neither language did he answer the question. Mr O’Rourke was not the only one who adopted that strategy: so did Mr Booker and Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, who also put in a strong performance. The one-issue candidates like Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, who is running on a platform of fighting climate change, and Tulsi Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii mostly concerned with averting foreign wars, strained to make their views heard. Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City who had been roundly mocked for entering the presidential race with his low popularity ratings, proved to be a surprisingly combative and forceful speaker. He suggested that the Democrats had drifted away from their tradition of supporting working-class Americans.
Unlike the previous cycle of Republican debates, which was characterised by personal attacks, the Democrats kept their disagreements civil and confined to policy matters. Much of the two hours was spent with them strenuously agreeing with each other: on the right of women to have abortions, on the necessity of seriously addressing climate change, and on the impropriety of Donald Trump occupying the office of president. Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota who has sought to occupy the centrist lane of the primary but has found herself supplanted by Joe Biden, the former vice-president, noted her queasiness with proposals for student-debt cancellation and a rapid transition to Medicare for All, which would boot many Americans off their private health-insurance schemes.
Perhaps the most striking rupture was prompted by Mr Castro, who pushed the decriminalisation of illegal immigration—an idea that is out of step even with the party’s base—and challenged his fellow contenders to endorse that too. Majorities of Americans tend to support Democrats on issues like health care and climate change; immigration is an area more easily exploited by Mr Trump. “Watching that image of Oscar and his daughter Valencia is heartbreaking,” Mr Castro said of the horrific image, recently published, of a drowned father and daughter from El Salvador who died while trying to get to America. “It should also piss us all off”.
A fuller showing comes on June 27th when the remaining favourites—including Mr Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders—will tussle. Watching his possible challengers, Mr Trump did not appear to be fazed in the slightest. “BORING!” he tweeted a mere 35 minutes in. Perhaps he will be more excited by the second debate.