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First Post-Iowa Democratic Debate Puts Candidates in a Chaotic Hot Seat (Column)

After what may have been the most chaotic week imaginable for the Democratic party, various competitors vied for the title of chief uniter.

The State of the Union address — which memorably ended with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tearing up President Donald Trump’s remarks — and the President’s acquittal in his impeachment trial came only after the Iowa caucuses yielded some, but not all, data. Though Iowa yielded enough information to give a sense of who might have the wind at their backs (there was good news for former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Bernie Sanders), it was hard not to feel, in the week just past, as though a sense of unity and momentum had slipped away from Democrats generally.

ABC News, putting on a generally well-run debate in New Hampshire, had little recourse; their staging of the last forum before voting takes place in the Granite State, no matter how well-managed, was bound to run into the buzzsaw of individual candidates’ need to justify themselves. This manifested itself at times benignly but tellingly, as in the case of a yet-more-driven Senator Elizabeth Warren redirecting conversations back to her plans, and to her own website, or in the case of Senator Amy Klobuchar exhibiting an unusually piquant resentment at Buttigieg and at the rest of the field (though her moment of unity with Sanders, with whom she admitted to having worked in the Senate, was an unusual bit of fun and humor in the evening’s proceedings).

But both of those women have largely been left out of the post-Iowa discussions — and mainstream candidates of color, other than Andrew Yang, have dropped out or been made marginal altogether. Watching a field of white candidates, and Yang, address issues surrounding the black community felt surreal through no fault of ABC News, or of any individual candidate. (With that said, ABC News’s Linsey Davis deserves special mention for following up with Buttigieg on a question he dodged about the black community in South Bend.) It felt, perhaps, like watching a system congested both by money and by the media’s own attention reaching its own natural endpoint, when all of the white contestants in this particular reality show were left to devour one another.

Warren and Sanders made judicious attempts to keep matters tightly focused on their plans, while Klobuchar continued her — as-yet-one-sided — battle with Buttigieg. Perhaps the most startling participant was Biden, whose engagement with the field seemed sputtering and short-fused, set to erupt in a manner that seemed undue and, even despite his tetchier temperament this campaign season, unfamiliar.

In all, ABC did an admirable job reining in and keeping to a tight timeline personalities that seemed, more than ever, distracted and ready to be done with this process — ready to talk about anything but a proscribed list presented by a news organization, up to and including uncomfortable matters like race. That the end result was a group of candidates talking past one another in line with their Iowa fortunes and their New Hampshire prospects — Biden the resentful frontrunner-brought-low, Warren the eternal optimist, Klobuchar the scrapper, Sanders and Buttigieg airily above it all — was to be expected. It’s hard to imagine what new could have been learned from the evening, other than that a tough week brings out not the best but the most of every candidate.

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