Swipes from rivals during the Democratic debate only prove Warren is now the frontrunner

Even a revived Bernie Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden look to be playing catchup.

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Tuesday’s CNN/New York Times debate felt a little like a slog. At three hours long, by the time the candidates got to the end question – a slightly vacuous “who is your most unexpected friend” – it seems likely that most voters would have turned off.

It was a debate with few surprises. California entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who is running on a platform of Universal Basic Income, had his first decent night of the campaign so far, managing to make his case more clearly than he has in previous debates. 

Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and billionaire Tom Steyer were the Marianne Williamsons of the debate, throwing a few weird curveballs – though sadly none as endearingly weird as those from Williamson herself have been.

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders had an excellent night, landing some good blows and seeming energetic – astonishingly so, considering he recently had a heart attack.

South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg took a sharp turn from his usual calm approach to take a swipe at Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, in a pivot that may well not serve him with a public that has come to like him as a voice of reason.

He wasn’t alone, though: former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke all took swipes at Warren, and she had to fend off attacks on multiple fronts.

That’s the key thing to note: Warren has now become the nominal frontrunner, the tall poppy at whom other candidates further down in the polls now must try to cut down. Even Joe Biden, who started the campaign as by far the frontrunner, was reduced to being part of the pack making jabs at the Massachusetts senator, who has recently cruised past him in many polls.

Probably the most fractious moment came between Warren, Sanders and Biden when the former vice-president swiped at their healthcare plans – a question on which moderators spent near-tedious amounts of time, unlike climate change, which didn’t get mentioned. “You did a good job at your job,” Biden said, with a little condescension in his voice. “Thanks,” Warren coldly replied.

But – aside from Sanders’ miraculous return to fine fettle – Warren’s confirmed ascension to frontrunner status was the main takeaway from a debate which will otherwise likely not move the needle far enough for most of the other candidates to prevent her seemingly-inexorable rise.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.