ATLANTA—It took almost two hours Wednesday night for a Democrat to take a shot at South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, the 2020 field's newest frontrunner in Iowa and New Hampshire.
By the time Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D., Hawaii) laid into her fellow veteran for suggesting he'd send troops to Mexico to battle the cartels, most viewers had likely tuned out of the sleepy debate.
Buttigieg, despite his vulnerabilities—at just 37 years old, he is relatively inexperienced and is struggling to gain the support of African-American voters—mostly coasted through the early part of the evening after two of his recent critics whiffed on direct confrontations.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), reminded of her earlier remark that a woman with Buttigieg's level of experience would not make the debate stage, did not take the opportunity to go on the attack against her fellow traveler in the so-called moderate lane.
"First of all, I made very clear I think Pete is qualified to be up on this stage, and I am honored to be standing next to him," she said. "But what I said is true. Women are held to a higher standard."
Instead, Klobuchar held her fire until after the debate's conclusion, when she told CNN that she was "more qualified" that Buttigieg, stronger criticism than she leveled at any point during primetime.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), who is flailing in the polls as much as Buttigieg is ascending, also punted on a chance to potentially recapture her "that little girl was me" moment in June with Joe Biden.
Buttigieg entered the debate on the heels of an embarrassing gaffe. His campaign was forced to take down a photo on its webpage for his plan for "black America" after it emerged that the black family pictured was Kenyan. Harris, responding to the controversy, said the Democratic nominee needed to have the "experience of connecting with all of who we are."
But when confronted on the debate stage with her sharp words about the stock photograph, Harris haltingly replied that the "mayor has, um, made apologies."
She then pivoted to remarks about how Democrats too often take black women for granted.
"My response is, I completely agree," said Buttigieg.
Buttigieg came into the debate as a clear top-tier candidate, following first-place polls in the nation's first two primary voting states. But that top-tier status belies his ongoing struggles with black voters, widely perceived as a key constituency of the Democratic Party.
The most recent Economist/YouGov poll found that Buttigieg was the first choice of 12 percent of white Democratic voters, but only 2 percent of black Democrats. Forty-six percent of white Democratic voters said they were at least considering voting for Buttigieg in the primaries, compared with only 19 percent of black Democratic voters.
As South Bend mayor, Buttigieg has faced criticism from the city’s African-American community over his handling of the fatal police shooting of young black man Eric Logan, his demotion of the city's first black police chief, and the multiple accusations of racism leveled against his hand-chosen police chiefs.
With other candidates passing up chances to take a shot at the new frontrunner, it took Gabbard—who clashed again with Harris and stood by her description of Hillary Clinton as the personification of "rot" in the Democratic Party—to get a rise out of Buttigieg.
"I think the most recent example of your inexperience in national security and foreign policy came from your recent careless statement about how you as president would be willing to send our troops to Mexico to fight the cartels," Gabbard said.
Buttigieg fired back that she had taken his words out of context.
"Do you seriously think anybody on this stage is proposing invading Mexico?" he asked incredulously.
When Buttigieg slammed her over her meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Gabbard retorted that he lacked the "courage" to meet with both adversaries and friends.
It was a stirring moment in a debate that largely lacked them. Buttigieg may have expected to be the center of attention for the evening, but lost the limelight to impeachment, which sucked the life out of the debate right away.
MSNBC host Rachel Maddow opened the debate by asking Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) if she would try to convince Republican senators to convict and remove Trump from office.
"Of course I will," Warren said, adding that Americans should read the 442-page Robert Mueller report.