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Nolan Finley: Dem debaters miss point of 2020 election

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
Democratic presidential candidates, from left, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney listen before the start of a Democratic primary debate.

As a Trump-weary conservative whose vote in 2020 will be up for grabs, I watched the first debate of the presidential campaign season looking for a place I might be comfortable placing it.

I didn’t see it on that Miami stage Wednesday night.

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Instead, the first tier of the opening Democratic debate was a reminder of how unappealing the field of candidates seeking to replace Donald Trump is to those voters who want a different president, but not one who would make government more powerful, taxes more onerous, jobs more scarce and our borders even more porous.

I get that these initial 10 Democrats aren’t yet speaking to voters like me. Before they can get to that point, they have to win over a Democratic base that is marching steadily toward socialism.

But they were so far left Wednesday night that it’s hard to imagine they can credibly return to anywhere near the middle.

It’s a reminder that Trump won’t be running against himself in 2020. He’ll be facing a Democrat, either one of the 10 we saw Wednesday or of the 10 who will take the stage Thursday. 

And the first bunch, at least, missed the point of this election.

Americans won’t be looking for a wholesale remake of the country in 2020. They’ll be seeking leadership. Character. Stability. Unity.

That’s what’s missing from the White House today. And it was also missing on the debate stage.

No one rose above the pack in terms of appearing presidential. They came across as lightweights unwilling to clearly define themselves.

Until now, Trump has fared poorly in the polls when matched up against most of the individual Democratic candidates. I suspect that will change now that Americans will get a better look at his challengers. 

There were some encouraging moments. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who is drawing less than 1 percent in the polls, came close to distinguishing herself as a grown-up in cautioning that all of the free stuff her rivals are promising, including Medicare for all, comes with a price tag. 

For the most part, though, the candidates seemed uncertain and uninspired. Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has been surging recently in the polls and came in as the favorite of this first group, fell flat. 

I can’t point to a single memorable line, or one moment when a candidate soared.

Maybe Thursday night’s session, which will feature Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, will be a better show.

But after watching the first debate, I’m not nearly as certain of Trump’s defeat in 2020 as I was before this batch of Democrats started talking.