RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It was a crowded stage - 12 presidential candidates, each vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was the fourth debate in the contest. It happened last night, and there was a new front-runner in the spotlight. Elizabeth Warren has been steadily building up support for months. She's been doing it without playing a big role in the debates so far. But last night on CNN, her opponents wouldn't let that slide.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
ELIZABETH WARREN: "Medicare for All" is the gold standard.
PETE BUTTIGIEG: And I don't understand why you believe the only way to deliver affordable coverage to everybody is to obliterate private plans.
AMY KLOBUCHAR: The difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.
MARTIN: Last two voices there - Senator Amy Klobuchar and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg with just two of the many attacks against Warren. NPR's Mara Liasson and Scott Detrow were at that debate in Westerville, Ohio, and they are with us now. Hi guys.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So, Mara, let's start with you. How did Elizabeth Warren handle all this pressure?
LIASSON: She held her own, but she did repeat the same answer over and over again. That's not always a good sign. She said costs will not go up. What she means is that once mandatory Medicare for All is in place and private health insurance is gone, net, net, net middle-class people will not pay more. But she would not admit that middle-class taxes would go up. These attacks on Warren are kind of a proxy for saying she's not electable because mandatory Medicare for All isn't popular with independent voters. Voters in a general election, it's unpopular 2-to-1. And some of the other attacks on Warren were kind of euphemisms for Warren is self-righteous and not electable. That's the complaint you hear from many Democrats. Amy Klobuchar, as you heard earlier, was one of the moderate candidates who pressed that attack.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KLOBUCHAR: I want to give a reality check here to Elizabeth because no one on this stage wants to protect billionaires. Not even the billionaire wants to protect billionaires. We just have different approaches. Your idea is not the only idea.
LIASSON: So that was a challenge, not so much on substance but against Elizabeth Warren's tone. The other candidates feel that she's saying if you don't agree with her, you're for the status quo.
MARTIN: All right. So, Scott, let's talk about the person who had been the target of most attacks in previous debates - Joe Biden. Ahead of this debate, there was all this news about President Trump's attempts to get foreign countries to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. He was asked about this by one of the moderators. Let's listen, and we'll talk after.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOE BIDEN: What we have to do now is focus on Donald Trump. He doesn't want me to be the candidate. He's going after me because he knows if I get the nomination, I will beat him like a drum.
MARTIN: So, Scott, how did the other candidates handle this? I mean, did they leave it to the moderators or did they attack Biden on this point?
DETROW: They stayed hands off. They stayed far away (laughter), you know, on the questions about Hunter Biden's various jobs that he held when Biden was vice president and also really notably everything else. And what a contrast that was to the first three rounds of debates where everybody was taking shots at Joe Biden. And it's also interesting. It wasn't just the candidates who didn't really follow up on this issue but the moderators as some candidates on the stage started to decry the questions about all of this, Cory Booker notably saying that this helps President Trump and the false attacks he's making against Biden. So the result was that, on one hand, Biden didn't have to answer too many questions about something that's dominated the race for several weeks. But on the other hand, he really disappeared from the TV and the night's narrative for very long stretches last night.
MARTIN: So there was some news that broke in Bernie Sanders' favor, right? He was - he notably got the endorsement of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. Mara, what kind of difference is that going to make for him?
LIASSON: Well, these freshman representatives are left-wing social media stars. They're important validators for young progressives. So I think it's definitely a boost for Bernie Sanders. He also had a good night because he looked vigorous after his heart attack. And his campaign said that he raised $600,000 online during the debate. So he's not going anywhere. We also may be seeing the end of the informal non-aggression pact between Sanders and Warren. He - last night, he kind of took Warren on with mandatory Medicare for All, saying it's his plan. He wrote the damn bill as, he says. And he was very clear about how to pay for it, where she is not. Here's what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BERNIE SANDERS: At the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of people will save money on their health care bills. But I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up.
MARTIN: So, Scott, no one really wins a debate. They don't really win the night. But, you know...
DETROW: That's not according to all the emails we get from the campaigning center (ph) after debates.
MARTIN: Right, everyone claiming that they won. But it is a good chance to see who rises above the fray. Who was notable to you last night?
DETROW: You know, of the candidates on the outside of the top polling tier looking in, I think Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., really took advantage of the moment, definitely more than in previous debates. He not only got points in, but he really set the tone of the conversation at many points in the night, took the lead in challenging Warren on Medicare for All, as we've talked about; also standing out in moments of foreign policy, speaking as a veteran, about the damage he sees in President Trump's sudden decision to pull back in Syria and leave the Kurds on their own. He also had some exchanges with Beto O'Rourke and others about gun policy. So all in all, Pete Buttigieg really got a chance to make his point last night.
MARTIN: Mara, final thought from you.
LIASSON: Yeah. I agree. I think Buttigieg is winning the Biden understudy battle. The other thing that was - really leapt out at me was how Biden kind of faded into the woodwork last night. He wasn't as much of a factor as he's been in other debates. He wasn't the target of attacks. And that just reflects the dynamic of the race with Warren on the rise.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Mara Liasson and NPR's Scott Detrow, thanks to you both.
DETROW: Sure thing.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.