Dem primary debate, night one: Elizabeth Warren and the nine dwarves

I didn’t think it was fair to describe her as “Snow White” in the headline since she is, after all, 1/8000th Cherokee. Plus, respect must be paid to her as the “policy wonk” in the race because you know how much Americans care about policy:

The clown car empties at 9 p.m. ET on NBC. To refresh your memory, tonight is the first of a two-part event each featuring 10 candidates. It was the luck of the draw that determined who would debate in which group, and Warren lucked out by finding herself alone amid a crowd of nobodies plus a few kinda-sorta-maybe mid-tier candidates. Most of the top tier — Biden, Bernie, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg — goes tomorrow. Tonight it’s:

Beto O’Rourke
Cory Booker
Amy Klobuchar
Bill de Blasio
Tulsi Gabbard
Julian Castro
Tim Ryan
Jay Inslee
John Delaney

No one apart from Warren herself looks to have any shot at the nomination, although I suppose one could weave some Beto comeback scenario or a Booker surge among black voters after Biden collapses for some reason. Tonight would have been big fun if Warren and Bernie had found themselves onstage together, with the two tempted to sharpen the distinctions between them for the benefit of the progressive voters they’re fighting over. It would have been less fun but still fun if this field had included some of the more eccentric nobody candidates, like Andrew Yang or Marianne Williamson or even goofy Eric Swalwell. But as it is, it’s Warren more or less alone, a plum opportunity for her to turbo-charge her momentum in the polls by making a good impression on Democratic voters who are seeing her for the first time. If she does — or if she makes a bad impression — tonight may be seen in hindsight as significant: Doubtless there’ll be plenty of casual Bernie 2016 voters who tune in because they’ve heard good things about Warren and are curious to see if she’s worth the hype. If they decide that she is, that might move the progressive mini-primary further in her direction and away from Sanders.

So there’s pressure on her, and there’s pressure on the three mid-tier semi-contenders, O’Rourke, Booker, and Klobuchar. Dem voters are likely to have heard a little something about each (maybe a lot in Beto’s case) and might approach tonight as a basic test of whether they’re worth paying any attention to going forward. Beto in particular needs a good debate, as he’s dipped from nearly 10 points in the RCP average as of early April to just 3.3 percent now, perilously close to asterisk territory. He also faces the strongest media suspicions of anyone onstage that he’s not ready for primetime, a narrative that Bernie fans who feared O’Rourke’s potential appeal began pushing early in his candidacy. If he stumbles somehow, they’re going to knife him tomorrow and he might sink further in the polling, never to return to even vaguely plausible contention.

The most elementary goal at a debate, particularly the first debate, is to make an impression, which presents candidates with a dilemma. Do they play nice this time, focusing on introducing themselves to the public, or they go hard at someone else in the field to generate some viral clips and media buzz? Someone like Booker who’s likely to qualify for the next few debates may choose to turn on the charm this evening. Someone like de Blasio or Gabbard, who may not have many more moments before the national cameras this year, may decide to go for the jugular. But whose jugular? Warren’s, since she’s the candidate with the most support onstage tonight? Or Biden, since he’s the leader in the field and the one Democrat more than any other whom the left wants to see stomped? I think Uncle Joe will bear the brunt of attacks as most of tonight’s field competes to pander to the left, with Warren probably refraining since she’s competing with Biden for centrist votes. The harder she hits him, the more she risks alienating some Biden fans.

As for Trump, there was chatter last week that he would live-tweet, i.e. live-troll, the debates as they happened. He’s on Air Force One right now, headed for the G20 in Japan, so yeah — he’s probably bored and ready to make trouble. If not, there are plenty of Trump surrogates who’ll step in for him.

If you’re away from the TV and can’t get NBC, they’re livestreaming the debate at, on the NBC News Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube pages, and on the NBC News mobile app. Oh, and various late-night shows, including the normally apolitical Jimmy Fallon’s, will be broadcasting live afterwards to cover the debate because we’re in hell now and that’s what happens in hell. I’ve embedded the handy dandy Twitter widget (which will include Trump’s tweets) in case you’re watching and looking for live reaction from smart people. Exit question: Will even one of these clowns propose a solution to the border crisis that doesn’t involve releasing every last asylum-seeker detained at the border into the U.S.?