Beto O’Rourke was the loser of the first Democratic primary debate

O’Rourke’s performance played into an ascendant narrative that there’s little substance beneath his charisma.

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Americans woke up on Thursday and googled Julián Castro. Elizabeth Warren may have been the biggest name onstage at Wednesday night’s Democratic debate, the first of the 2020 presidential cycle, but some star-turns from Cory Booker and a surprisingly powerful performance from Castro, who’d previously gone all but unmentioned, showed the race is far from settled.

While it was expected that Donald Trump and Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden would be discussed in absentia, any mention of either was practically non-existent. Ahead of the debates, campaign strategists had driven home the importance of talking about beating Trump, with one even scripting a kind of challenge to him “if you're watching”, but in the end the president was at most an afterthought. Warren didn’t mention him once.

Impeachment was likewise an unpopular topic. When an NBC host voiced an impeachment question, candidates who had been vying all night for more microphone time instead ducked the question and deferred to House Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“I support Speaker Pelosi’s decisions,” said John Delaney, who was among the first to answer what turned out to be one of the evening’s more uncomfortable questions. “I think she knows more about the decision… than any of the 2020 candidates combined.”

No one onstage was at pains to correct him. This may have been a wise move. Recent polling shows that impeachment talk is relatively unpopular with the electorate. Democrat candidates were also successful in the midterms when they didn’t talk about Trump.

For once, the president was relatively quiet, too – he tweeted that the debate was “boring” and criticised NBC and MSNBC for a technical issue with the production. 

The ten candidates instead deferred to the perennial grade-school writing instruction to “show not tell”. The real work of the first debate isn’t for candidates to talk about beating Trump; after all, that ambition is implicit in their being on stage. For the ten candidates, much of the work lay in communicating their identity – and distinguishing themselves from one another in a crowded field.

In this regard, Cory Booker and Bill de Blasio put on sparkling performances. Beto O’Rourke and Jay Inslee stumbled, while others disappeared almost entirely. Warren held steady and strong, and more clearly defined her views on healthcare, as one of just two candidates committed to supporting a single-payer system. 

But it was Castro who wowed, invoking his personal trajectory with almost unrecognisable energy. He held court on immigration: his recent proposal to decriminalise border-crossing without papers is the most radical approach of its kind.

It’s a crucial space to occupy at a time when the dehumanising conditions that confront immigrants and their children at the US-Mexico border make front-page news. In the lead up to the debate Warren, who famously has a plan for everything, found herself endorsing his proposal.

Castro’s policy also served as an effective weapon. O’Rourke, a fellow Texan, opposes repealing Section 1325 – the legislation that makes it illegal to enter the United States without papers – because he believes it would enable human trafficking. He attempted to shift the conversation towards family separation, but Castro shot back that the issues are one and the same. “If you did your homework on this issue, you would know that we should repeal this section,” he said.

The dig plays into an ascendant narrative about O’Rourke that there’s little substance beneath his charisma. And though other candidates have ridden such ineffable charms to the White House by backing them with extensive policy proposals – or extensive bullshitting – it increasingly appears he has neither.

O’Rourke repeatedly dodged substance with meandering anecdotes. He responded to an opening question with awkward grade school-level Spanish, which felt forced and showy and garnered a strange look from Booker, who went on to awkwardly foist some grade school-style Spanish of his own into a response on immigration.

Their Spanish skills have been used to better effect in more casual settings, where the ability to respond in kind to a Spanish-speaking American comes off as respectful. But in the high-profile, performative debate environment, the overtures felt pandering.

Early on in the debate Amy Klobuchar dealt a strong blow to Jay Inslee for casting himself as the great champion of abortion rights when there were three women lawmakers onstage. Yet for the rest of the debate, she was nowhere to be seen.

This wasn’t the only misstep from Inslee, who has defined himself as the one candidate devoted above all to climate change. When a question on the climate, which voters have rated second only to healthcare as the most important issue to hear candidates speak on, finally came up more than 70 minutes into the two-hour debate, Inslee was served a perfect chance to decry the other candidates. But he passed up the opportunity entirely.

Asked what the greatest geopolitical threat of our time is, Inslee answered early – and said Trump. (The most popular answer was climate change with four candidates, including Warren, mentioning it by name.)

For Inslee and O’Rourke, the greatest threat during the debate seemed to be opening their mouths.

Lucia Graves is a columnist and feature writer for the Guardian US. She tweets @lucia_graves