DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, we finally got to see all the leading Democratic presidential candidates on the same stage together last night at a debate in Houston. The question is whether that made the choices any clearer for voters. Let's give a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
JOE BIDEN: I think we should have a debate on health care. I think - I know that the senator says she's for Bernie. Well, I'm for Barack. I think the Obamacare worked.
ELIZABETH WARREN: The richest individuals and the biggest corporations are going to pay more, and middle-class families are going to pay less. That's how this is going to work.
KAMALA HARRIS: I mean, I would just say, hey Joe, instead of saying, no, we can't, let's say, yes, we can.
PETE BUTTIGIEG: This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington - scoring points against each other, poking at each other, and telling each other that you're - my plan, your plan - look. We all have different visions for what is better...
JULIAN CASTRO: That's called the Democratic primary election. That's called an election...
GREENE: All right. I want to bring in two of our best to walk us through what we learned from this debate last night. NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid was at the debate, and she joins us from Houston. And we're also joined by NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Good morning to you both.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, David.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: Domenico, I want to start with you. Any more clarity - does this race have any more clarity with all the major candidates together last night?
MONTANARO: You know, I don't think there was anything that happened last night that, fundamentally, will likely shift what we saw with the direction of the race that's happened so far. I mean - because it was probably the crispest debate so far for former Vice President Joe Biden. That certainly probably just helps his standing. He got some help last night from Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, especially on this long back-and-forth on health care. And she decided she was going to kind of hug the moderate lane, which she hasn't really committed to in past debates - didn't really kind of want to go mix it up. She was certainly willing to do that last night, and that really seemed to kind of help prop up Biden in some ways.
GREENE: Because previous debates, it's kind of been - felt like people piling on the former vice president. It sounds like this was different.
MONTANARO: Definitely, yep.
GREENE: Asma, a lot of focus on the fact that this would be the first time we were seeing Elizabeth Warren with a chance to confront Joe Biden on stage. It sounds like it wasn't a piling on, but how did Warren do?
KHALID: Yeah, you know, I mean, I think if anyone thought that they might see fireworks between those two candidates, maybe all they got were just a few sparklers, right? There was no huge moment, no slip up. You know, she tends to use these debates as an extended opportunity to introduce herself to voters and deliver a version of her stump speech. And last night, she stayed on message. You know, I would say her campaign has been working a lot on some of the ground game in early voting states. And I would say in general, the two really only tangled extensively around health care.
GREENE: What we heard all of the candidates - or a lot of them, including Elizabeth Warren, actually - embracing sort of an 11th person who wasn't actually on the stage but might have been. Let's give a listen here.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
HARRIS: I want to give credit first to Barack Obama, for really bringing us this far...
WARREN: We all owe a huge debt to President Obama, who fundamentally transformed health care in America.
CASTRO: And, of course, we owe a debt of gratitude to President Barack Obama...
GREENE: Domenico, this seemed like a good night for Barack Obama.
MONTANARO: Well, yeah, but I also think that these candidates realize that voters in the Democratic primary really like Barack Obama. And really, Joe Biden has been the only one who's been, you know, clinging so closely to the former president. Obviously, he was his vice president, so he's able to do that. But it was really kind of remarkable for how long these candidates didn't realize just how important, for example, older black voters are in the primary - how much affection they have for the former president. And in turn, that has helped the resiliency of Biden's brand.
GREENE: We mentioned, I mean, that health care was a place where there was some sparring - and particularly "Medicare for All." This was a big policy fight last night. It seemed to me like a lot of the candidates were putting pressure on Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren over that plan. Asma, what'd you make of that?
KHALID: That's true. I would say for much of this campaign, the focus of the health care debate has been concentrated on the progressive left, you know, specifically around Bernie Sanders' vision for a Medicare for All plan. Last night, the former vice president, Joe Biden, was much more aggressive in defending his own ideas around health care. And he got some help, as Domenico's mentioned, from Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. You know, whenever a Medicare for All plan is discussed, Bernie Sanders often points out that he wrote the, quote, "damn bill." Well, here's how Klobuchar responded.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AMY KLOBUCHAR: While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill. And on page eight...
KLOBUCHAR: ...On page eight of the bill, it says that we will no longer have private insurance as we know it. I don't think that's a bold idea. I think it's a bad idea.
KHALID: And this idea of eliminating choice is something we also heard from South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He talked about his plan for a Medicare for all who want it. He said that, essentially, you should trust the American voters to do what they want.
GREENE: All right, Domenico, I mean, Buttigieg, Klobuchar - candidates who are not Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren - what did you make of their chance here to stand out?
MONTANARO: Look. This is - we're within five months of the first votes being cast. I think a lot of the candidates are starting to feel the pressure. You've had candidates start to drop out, start to run for other things. And when you have a field of almost two dozen people running, some of these folks who have been polling lower and haven't been able to kind of break out decided that they needed to do that last night and probably took more risks than we've seen so far. Beto O'Rourke, kind of fresh off the full reboot of his candidacy, certainly went that direction, talking about hell, yes, he's going to take away assault-style weapons. Andrew Yang has this competition where he's going to give 10 people a thousand dollars a month. So, you know, a lot of these folks felt like they had to take risks, and they did.
GREENE: All right. The morning after the debate in Houston with NPR's Domenico Montanaro and Asma Khalid. Thank you both.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
KHALID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.