Critic's Notebook: The Democratic Death March Begins

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The first debate featured 10 candidates, most of whom were desperately trying to make any sort of impression.

One thing became very clear during Wednesday night's first Democratic debate. It's going to be a long, long 16 months. Forget the candidates, it's the voters who are going to have to learn to pace themselves.  

The first installment of Survivor: Democratic Debate Edition assembled 10, count 'em, 10 candidates, many of whom you've probably never heard of. By happenstance, it featured the relative undercard of this week's series, with such heavy hitters as Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg slotted for the next evening. The contenders included Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Beto O'Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Tim Ryan, Jay Inslee and Bill de Blasio.

(Oh, and there was also someone named John Delaney onstage. Could someone please Google him for me?)

The event was a mostly decorous affair, lacking the petty name calling and comparisons of body parts that were the dubious distinctions of the Republican debates the last time around. For that, you'll have to wait until the general election. The biggest fireworks came during an impassioned exchange between O'Rourke and Castro over the immigration crisis. "I think you should do your homework on this issue," said Castro to his rival. That candidates were actually arguing over serious issues seemed almost an anachronism in the current political climate.

Several of the candidates, especially O'Rourke and Castro, kept lapsing into Spanish, no doubt mindful that the event was being televised on Telemundo, among other stations. It was easy to admire their desire for inclusion, but for those of us who've forgotten most of the Spanish we learned in high school, the lack of translation proved frustrating. It would have been nice to understand everything that was being said without having to press #1 for English.

NBC was no doubt embarrassed by a major technical glitch that occurred just as the second half of the evening began. As Chuck Todd attempted his first question, the audio included unknown, loudly chattering voices. Apparently, the previous moderators' microphones hadn't been shut off, and we were still hearing them. It made you grateful that none of them had gone to the bathroom. (And by the way, did Todd really need to greet co-moderator Rachel Maddow by saying, "Hi, Rachel, how are you doing?" as if they were just seeing each other for the first time?)

With so many candidates on display, it wasn't surprising that many of them fought desperately to define themselves. Gabbard, for instance, brought up her military service so many times throughout the evening it made you wonder why she wasn't wearing fatigues.

Inslee has made climate change the central issue of his campaign. Actually, the only issue. You can't blame him for attempting to distinguish himself from the pack by focusing on a singular topic, but people generally want presidents who can concentrate on more than one thing at a time.

De Blasio displayed his New York City bona fides by frequently interrupting the other candidates in a desperate attempt to look strong. He's angling to stand out as the most progressive candidate in the race, which is a pretty tall order when you're running against Bernie Sanders.

Tim Ryan is staking his candidacy on the fact he's from Ohio. He constantly stressed his working-class, Midwestern background to contrast himself with those Democrat coastal elites who lost the last election. He referenced "the forgotten community" in his closing statement, which is something he may well be a part of by the time the next series of debates are held.

Cory Booker made a strong impression. He always does. He delivers every answer like a motivational coach trying to make you believe in yourself. But he really needs to tone down the references to the inner-city neighborhood where he resides. He brought up its gun violence and poverty so often it seemed less like he was running for president than starting a crowdfunding campaign for a new home.

Castro, not surprisingly, was strongest on immigration, forcefully condemning the horrors taking place at the border and making an emotional appeal by talking about Oscar and Valeria, the father and daughter whose drowned bodies were captured in a photograph that has put a very tragic and human face on an issue that Trump uses as red meat to incite his base.

O'Rourke also delivered a strong, if not breakout performance, providing thoughtful answers to complex questions. He tamped down the emotionalism that can sometimes get him into trouble, thankfully resisting the impulse to exclaim, "I'm just born to be in it!" Instead, he kept sounding like a father trying to reason with his young children having a tantrum.

Klobuchar seems to be banking on the idea that competence, if not charisma, can win her the presidency. It's a novel idea in this day and age, but her lack of fireworks prevented her from making much of an impact. She did have her moments, however. Referencing our current president, she commented, "I don't think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at five in the morning." (Look for a presidential tweet about that.) And when Inslee attempted to present himself as the foremost champion of female reproductive rights, she archly responded, "I just want to say there are three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman's right to choose."

Warren, the clear frontrunner among the bunch, not surprisingly had a lot of plans that she was often given the opportunity to discuss. Her wonkishness has become her biggest strength, if also a running gag. When asked if she had a plan to deal with Mitch McConnell should she get elected, all she had to do was smile and say "I do" to get applause. She'll probably soon unveil a plan for how to have better debates.  

Ultimately, it was an evening in which no knockout blows were scored nor candidacies dramatically elevated. By the time it was over, the main thought you were left with was, "One down, 11 more to go."