oe vs. Liz shaped up Thursday night to be the marquee match Democrats have been waiting for.

Front-runner Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren appeared on the same debate stage for the first time in the 2020 campaign, giving voters the clearest chance yet to size up their best options for the coming battle to unseat President Trump.

The former vice president wasted no time taking a shot at Warren on health care and wrapping himself in the mantle of former President Barack Obama in the debate broadcast by ABC News,

“The senator says she’s for Bernie. Well, I’m for Barack. I think Obamacare worked,” said Biden, referring to Warren’s support for Medicare for All over Obamacare, which set up a marketplace in which people without employer-funded health insurance must buy coverage from private companies.

Warren refused to back down, showing off the smart and folksy style that has kept her star rising with the progressive wing of the party.

“Now the question is how best can we improve on (Obamacare),” she said. “I actually never met a person who loves their insurance company.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders chimed in by defending Medicare for All with his own trademark fiery style: “I wrote the damn bill.”

After battling in separate rounds of the first two debates, Biden and Warren jousted head-to-head for the first time in the trimmed-down debate field in front of an audience at Texas Southern University, a historically black school in Houston.

Warren, 70, who has risen steadily in polls for several months, avoided sparring with rivals, instead portraying herself as a plain-spoken populist fighter who is not afraid to take on Trump. She reminded voters that she worked her way through college when tuition was $50 a semester and worked as a public school teacher.

An animated Biden, 76, tried to stay on the offensive by attacking Warren and Sanders.

For the most part he avoided his trademark gaffes, although he did lose his thread in a rambling, groan-inducing answer in which he suggested that parents should keep “the record player on at night” for kids.

He even deliberately talked over a debate moderator in a dramatic contrast to his passive approach in the first debate.

“No, I’m going to go (over the time limit) like the rest of them do, twice over,” Biden said, flashing an angry glare.

A possible breakout star of the debate was Beto O’Rourke, who eloquently spoke out against racism and gun violence, basking in repeated praise of rivals for his handling of the mass killing in his hometown of El Paso.

O’Rourke stared straight into the camera and insisted that assault weapons have no place in America.

“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” said O’Rourke, skirting a prohibition on cursing on live TV. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”

Among other intriguing story lines of the debate:

Kamala takes on Trump. Sen. Kamala Harris started strongly, drawing the biggest cheer of the opening statements by taunting President Trump. “Now you can go back to watching Fox News,” she told Trump when she was done.

Castro snaps hard at Biden. Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro was perhaps the vice president’s harshest critic on the stage. He made a nasty jibe at Biden’s age during the debate on health when he asked, “Did you forget what you said two minutes ago?”

Later, Castro accused Biden of using his relationship with Obama. That sparked a sharp reaction from Biden: “I stood with President Barack Obama, in good times, bad and indifferent.”

Mayor Pete and Cory fizzle again. The grownups-only debate format gave Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker and O’Rourke a chance to rumble with the big boys (and girls).

Only O’Rourke really moved the needle with his stance on gun violence, although Booker maybe had the best joke of the night when he said he was not recommending his vegan diet for everyone. “I want to say, no. Actually, I want to translate that into Spanish. No.”

Yang warfare. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang differentiated himself with his tie-free style and a pitch for his 1,000 bucks-a-month guaranteed income plan. He struck a sour note by touting his health care expertise because he “knows a lot of Asian doctors.” But he spoke passionately about the value of immigrants to America, noting that his father worked on a peanut factory with a dirt floor.

Bill’s gone (and probably forgotten). Mayor de Blasio failed to make the cut for the debate. He was watching from Gracie Mansion with his family and live-tweeted the event. It’s not clear many voters missed Hizzoner, who is polling around 0%.

Trump, who is in Baltimore for a meeting with GOP lawmakers, said he won’t watch the debate live and will instead catch a “re-run” after he returns to Washington. With just a half-hour to go, he had yet to weigh in on Twitter.

It’s worth remembering that the first two debates (really four since the unwieldy field was split in two) failed to change the dynamic of the race much.

Biden has remained the front-runner since he entered the race in April. Despite being dinged a couple of times, he has maintained a commanding lead among black voters and is considered the one most likely to beat Trump by a wide margin.

Warren has risen steadily in the polls, rising from the middle of the pack to become Biden’s main rival on his left flank.

Sanders has slipped a bit from the No. 2 position in part because Warren has stolen some of his thunder with progressive and better-educated voters.

Buttitieg and Harris have each had boomlets of support but they have failed to cement a spot in the top tier.

The next debate is set for October and could (gulp) revert to the dreaded two-night format.

That’s because, for reasons that remain inscrutable, the Democratic National Committee set the same standards of polling and donor numbers for that debate as Thursday night’s contest, meaning a handful of fringe candidates could make the stage. Even De Blasio has a slim chance of getting out of Gracie for that one.


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