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The Perils of Going Negative

Why the candidates, wisely, refused to go for the jugular in the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Julián Castro roamed the Spin Room after Thursday night’s debate like Banquo’s ghost.

The former presidential candidate, who has quickly morphed into an enthusiastic pitchman for Elizabeth Warren, should have been a walking reminder of what happens to candidates who go for the jugular in debates.

He eviscerated Beto O’Rourke during a back and forth about immigration in the first Democratic debate last June. Then, in September’s debate, Castro snidely responded to a muddled answer from Joe Biden by suggesting that the former vice president was past his pull date: “Are you forgetting what you just said two minutes ago?”

Now Castro, the Latino former Cabinet secretary and San Antonio mayor, is reduced to praying that he will be Warren’s running mate on a historic diversity ticket. His arc illustrates that the “viral moments” supposedly coveted by any candidate jockeying for screen time on a crowded debate stage have more to do with their root word, “virus,” than they do with political success.

Many campaign reporters still don’t understand that. Craving blood like bullfight aficionados in an Ernest Hemingway novel, they expected Warren and Bernie Sanders to slice each other up over the electability of a woman president and Sanders and Biden to relitigate their votes on the Iraq War.

Instead, they got a debate in which all six candidates were on their best behavior. And for the most part, they all (including soporific billionaire Tom Steyer) played at the top of their game. If Mike Bloomberg is allowed to join later debates, he will be a greenhorn up against candidates who have perfected the art of delivering 75-second answers and fast rebuttals.

Campaign strategy helped explain why normally aggressive New Englanders like Sanders and Warren became apostles of “Iowa nice.” None of the candidates will have another opportunity (apart from their increasingly ineffective TV commercials) to address a mass audience before the Iowa caucuses on February 3. And they all used their time on stage Tuesday night to burnish their images as would-be Donald Trump slayers.

By this point in the campaign, each of the candidates has perfected their talking points using months of audience feedback from their stump speeches, press coverage, and, yes, internal polls. With everything on the line in the impossible-to-predict caucuses, no one was willing to risk dramatic departures from the tried and true.

Sure, they tried to smooth over their weak points.

Sanders, who had a strong night, deftly used humor to try to remind Iowans that he is more than just a left-wing ideologue screaming about the injustices of the capitalist system. When Biden bragged, as he often does on the campaign trail, that Kim Jong Un called him a “rabid dog,” Sanders was ready with a riposte. He asked Biden in a tone of mock innocence, “Other than that, you like him?”

Peter Buttigieg, under political fire for his apparent lack of minority support, went out of his way to express concern for “black and brown Americans” who will disproportionately feel the brunt of climate change. Late in the debate, Buttigieg also pointedly began talking about “something that hasn’t come up very much tonight but deserves a lot of attention—poverty.”

Warren, as she does in her stump speech, repeatedly used the cadences of her Oklahoma childhood to stress that her roots make her more than a whip-smart, but strict, law professor. She talked movingly about how her Aunt Bea saved her during law school by taking on childcare duties. And then Warren went on to say, in her folksiest manner, that she worried about “how many mamas and daddies today are getting knocked off the track” because of childcare.

It is no longer news that Klobuchar had another good debate. In fact, she could probably run debate-prep seminars if her White House ambitions fall short. But last night the three-term Minnesota senator made a particularly pointed effort to overcome the biggest obstacle facing women presidential candidates: proving that she is tough enough to be commander in chief. She was strong in talking about restoring the Iran nuclear agreement, pointedly adding, “We can bring them back, understanding this is a terrorist regime that we cannot allow to have a nuclear weapon.”

As for Biden, he merely needed to keep the subjects and predicates of his sentences in the same zip code. After rocky performances in the first few debates, the 77-year-old former vice president has recently appeared more credible on stage, stilling the kind of attacks on his age that Castro leveled back in September. Few of Biden’s debate answers last night were memorable, but in political terms, they didn’t need to be.

Normally, the Des Moines debate would signal the last desperate sprint to the Iowa finish line. But there is nothing normal about an impossible-to-handicap Iowa contest, in which leading candidates could head for New Hampshire crowing about their first-place finish or desperately trying to put an upbeat gloss on the words “fourth place.”

Adding to the weirdness is, of course, the impeachment trial that will sentence Warren, Sanders, and Klobuchar to house (whoops, Senate) arrest. Nothing in a soothsayer’s tool kit can predict how this will play out with only Biden and Buttigieg campaigning in Iowa unencumbered by impeachment responsibilities. Klobuchar, especially, needs a strong finishing kick to justify continuing her campaign past Iowa. Traditionally, that means nonstop campaigning, seven or eight stops a day, as her voice grows hoarse from all the exertion of trying to close the deal. Instead, Klobuchar will find herself sitting silently in the Senate, longing to be in Sac City, Iowa.

Of course, the impeachment trial poses real risks for Buttigieg and Biden, too.

Having all three of his top rivals rendering judgment on Donald Trump in Washington may call attention to the fact that Buttigieg has spent his career not on Capitol Hill, but in South Bend.

And while Trump’s defense team presumably has nothing new to say about Hunter Biden, they will undoubtedly highlight his involvement in the Ukraine affair during the trial. The short-term danger for the former vice president is that these attacks on his son may convince some Iowa Democrats that Biden is not the safest nominee to run against Trump. It may be unfair, but $50,000-a-month consulting contracts with a Ukrainian energy company (no matter how legal) are not easy to airbrush away.

There is good news ahead for those reporters disappointed that the supposed fireworks fizzled during the Des Moines debate. Instead, the entire nation may be treated to an epic Iowa caucus night on February 3, rich with drama and filled with uncertainty. All in all, not a bad consolation prize.