Democrats open minded on first debate, but expert 'underwhelmed'

Sandy Zerkle

East Lansing — As the first 10 of 20 Democratic presidential hopefuls took the stage Wednesday night, voters in East Lansing watched the rapid-fire responses with largely open minds. 

But University of Michigan Director of Debate Aaron Kall called the first night of the Democratic debate “underwhelming,” noting candidates appeared to have a more in-depth discussion about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel than about President Donald Trump.

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“I thought Trump would loom large over the entire evening, and he was kind of absent except from a few zingers,” said Kall, who is in Miami for the two-night debate.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was the highest profile candidate on the stage. Although she started out “very strong,” Kall said she did not do enough to assert herself in the second half of the debate.

“I think she really missed an opportunity to kind of steal the night and solidify herself maybe as the prominent challenger to Joe Biden,” he said, referencing the former vice president who is an early favorite for the party’s nomination.

Many at the Ingham County Democratic Party watch party had their favorites, but were eager to hear from each of the candidates. They seemed unperturbed by the total of 24 candidates competing for the Democratic nomination. 

“We have this crowded field of very good Democrats and I’m trying to figure out how we narrow them down so we can find a candidate we can rally around,” said Sandy Zerkle, of Lansing. “I think that’s the most important thing we can do in the next six months.”

Several people broke into applause as candidates discussed income inequality and the need for policy that would afford opportunities for all classes of people. Others cheered for comments on immigration, women’s rights and environmental policy that accounted for climate change.

The back and forth among candidates regarding immigration and health care issues was “interesting,” said Zerkle, 70. She attributed most of it to the candidates’ desire to set themselves apart from the pack. 

“That’s another thing that we need to pull together on and centralize,” Zerkle said about immigration and health care issues.

At the party at Reno's, several people broke into applause as the 10 candidates discussed income inequality and the need for policy that would afford opportunities for all classes of people.

David Gibbs

Warren was a front runner in David Gibbs’ mind, but he said he’s willing to support anyone capable of beating President Donald Trump. The Wednesday debate likely didn't change the minds of many, the East Lansing resident said. 

"I still haven't seen anyone and I don't think I'll see anybody better than she is," Gibbs said of Warren.

Kirsten Fermaglich was interested in hearing their views on immigration and abortion. The East Lansing resident is a member of Lansing Indivisible, a group that formed after the 2016 election to foster civility in politics.

With several speakers and little time to speak, candidates were surprisingly detailed and specific in their plans for addressing issues like immigration and abortion, said Fermaglich, 48.

“You see a nice diversity of opinion,” Fermaglich said.

Joe Zande was impressed by Warren’s performance and interested in some of the candidates’ use of Spanish on stage, but the Lansing man said he was most surprised by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s early performance in the debates.

Kirsten Fermaglich

“I thought I would hate him,” said Zande, 49. “But he had good points about what the Democratic Party should be.”

If anyone sees a bump from the debate, it will likely be Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro or Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, debate expert Kall said.

As the only Latino candidate in the race, and a fluent Spanish speaker in an opening debate held in Miami, “a lot of things broke right” for Castro,” he said.

While prominent candidates like Trump “dominated” speaking time during crowded GOP debates in 2016, NBC moderators appeared intent on trying to ensure equal time for each Democrat, Kall said.

“That really hurts the front runners and allows kind of second-tier candidates to reach a higher level,” he said.

As Democrats began to gather at Reno’s for the watch party, Michigan State University men's basketball Coach Tom Izzo stopped by for a few minutes to say hello and shake a few hands. 

Izzo did not stay for the start of the debate, but appeared to be as popular as the candidates who later took the stage hundreds of miles away. 

Before the debate's start, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tweeted what she described as a favorite quote from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt: “Big minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people."

Joe Zande

Another 10 candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, are scheduled to debate Thursday in Miami.

But not all Democrats planned to watch.

Michigan strategist TJ Bucholz said he might tune in for parts of the two-night affair but was not particularly interested in seeing who could “pivot to their talking points the fastest” or take advantage of a “gotcha moment.”

Many Democrats are ready to rally around any candidate who emerges from the primaries to challenge Trump, Bucholz said.

“I’m one of those voters who would vote for a trash bag so long as it has a D behind it,” he said. “As a purveyor of Democratic politics in this cycle, for me, (debate) performance does not matter as much as unseating the president at our earliest opportunity.”