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Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) appear on television screens.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) appear on television screens during the Democratic Presidential Debate on October 15, 2019.
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Elizabeth Warren was treated like the frontrunner at the CNN debate

Warren took the brunt of the attacks at the Democratic debate. It shows she’s reached frontrunner status.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has officially arrived as a 2020 frontrunner, and at Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, her opponents attacked her like one.

In the past few weeks, Warren has climbed her way to the top of the 2020 pack where she’s now considered a frontrunner along with Vice President Joe Biden, according to a Real Clear Politics average. Up until now, Warren has largely stayed out of the fray in the Democratic debates — rarely going on the offensive and mostly escaping fire herself. That changed significantly in Ohio on Tuesday.

Moderate candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg were ready to pounce on Warren at the start of the debate, when the oft-repeated question of whether Warren would raise taxes to pay for the Medicare-for-all plan she’s backed was raised yet again. Warren told moderators that “costs will go up for the wealthy and for big corporations, and for hard-working middle-class families costs will go down,” but did not directly answer yes or no about whether she’d raise taxes.

Buttigieg, in particular, had been signaling for days he planned to hit Warren on Medicare-for-all, a plan he’s repeatedly called pie-in-the-sky. He quickly took his chance.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg behind podiums at the Democratic presidential debate.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg during the Democratic presidential debate on October 15, 2019.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“This is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular,” Buttigieg said. “Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything, except this. No plan has been laid out to explain how a multitrillion dollar hole in this plan that Sen. Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in.”

After Buttigieg was done and Warren had panned the mayor’s “Medicare-for-all who want it” plan as “Medicare-for-all who can afford it,” Klobuchar stepped up to the plate for her go at Warren.

“At least Bernie [Sanders] is being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up,” Klobuchar said. “And I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that. And I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we will send the invoice.”

It’s not just that Buttigieg and Klobuchar — both of whom are running on their Midwestern backgrounds and more moderate politics — are just going after Warren for being progressive. They’re going after her because she’s formidable.

Warren seemed to have more incoming attacks than even Biden

Warren and Biden are arguably the two frontrunners of the 2020 Democratic field, but it felt like Warren was getting the full brunt of her opponents criticism throughout much of the night. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is polling third behind the two, also largely escaped attacks — moderate candidates even commended him for saying his Medicare-for-all plan would raise taxes (disproportionately on the wealthy, Sanders pointed out).

At the beginning of the night, CNN moderator Anderson Cooper practically handed Sanders an opening to go after Biden, asking the senator from Vermont to chime in on whether Biden showed poor judgement by letting his son Hunter Biden serve on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. Sanders didn’t take the bait, pivoting to talking about impeaching President Donald Trump and the various other crises America faces.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) even took it upon himself to blast CNN for asking Biden about his son’s business ties to Ukraine — noteworthy for someone who hasn’t been shy about criticizing the former vice president in the past.

“That was so offensive,” Booker told the moderators and audience. “We are literally using Donald Trump’s lies and the second issue we cover on this stage is elevating a lie and attacking a statesman.”

The Buttigieg/Klobuchar team was much more interested in attacking Warren than Sanders; they did it again when the subject of Warren’s signature wealth tax came up. Klobuchar said she wanted to deliver Warren a “reality check” on her wealth tax, adding, “your idea is not the only idea.”

Buttigieg attempted to paint Warren as a creature of Washington who is out of touch with Midwestern voters.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) listens to South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg during the Democratic presidential debate.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) listens to South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg during the Democratic presidential debate.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“Let me tell you how this looks from the industrial Midwest, where I live. Washington politicians, congressmen, and senators saying all the right things, offering the most elegant policy prescriptions, and nothing changes,” Buttigieg said on the subject of Warren’s wealth tax. Warren, it should be noted, is originally from Oklahoma and is not exactly a friend to Washington; she’s proposed a wide-ranging anti-corruption plan to get money out of all three branches of government.

To be sure, Warren wasn’t the only person onstage to be put on the spot. But she was the target of a number of candidates’ attacks; at one point, for instance, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) asked Warren to support her controversial stance on Syria, (Gabbard has expressed pro-Assad stances numerous times). Warren demurred on that question as well, saying, “I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East, but we have to do it the right way, the smart way.”

And Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) also sparred with Warren, as she challenged her to join Harris’s call for Twitter to suspend President Trump’s Twitter account. Warren declined and instead talked about breaking up big tech. She challenged fellow candidates to disclose if they are taking campaign money from tech executives.

It’s not surprising. Warren is tough competition, and candidates who have been struggling in the polls are finally starting to act like it.

These jabs shouldn’t be surprising; Warren is polling well

As the progressive frontrunner, Warren is the most obvious target for moderates who are hesitant to go after Biden. And if she keeps rising in the polls, the attacks are likely to increase.

Warren recently narrowly pulled ahead of Biden in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, but Biden has since reclaimed the lead. However, Warren is leading in the critical early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, while Biden has a substantial lead in South Carolina.

Of course, it’s worth plugging another reminder that it is still early and things can (and probably will) change. We are still four months away from February’s Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. And while Biden, Warren, and Sanders have all led polls for months, there are still 16 other candidates in the race — and any one of them could have a breakout moment.

As Vox’s Tara Golshan pointed out recently:

There isn’t a clear narrative even among the top three. Fundraising totals from the third quarter put Sanders in the lead, while Biden’s numbers are closer to entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s than to Warren’s or Sanders’s. Campaigns are still building out their ground games in crucial early states, where their coalitions are overlapping.

“We have basically have had a tied race going back several months now,” Andy Smith, a pollster with the University of New Hampshire, told Vox. “People make up their minds at the very end.”

We’re still a long way away from Iowa, but tonight provided us a good look at who a lot of these candidates view as their main competition.

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