BOSTON (CBS) – It was more of a joint job interview than a debate, and MSNBC’s decision to forego the three-hours-plus ordeal of past debates proved merciful.

But like a cold beer, even a mediocre debate is better than not having one.

So what did we learn?

That the “top tier” candidates are sticking with their game plans, even though they’re delivering mixed results.

Invited off the top to weigh in on President Trump just hours after his own appointee shredded what was left of his denials of playing politics with aid to Ukraine, the leading Democrats all used the story to pivot to their branding.

“How did Ambassador Sondland get there?” asked Elizabeth Warren. “This is not a man with any qualifications except one – he wrote a check for a million dollars. And that tells us what’s happening in Washington – corruption.” Warren then challenged her competitors to join her in refusing to award ambassadorships to campaign donors; none did.

“This is a pattern with this man,” said Amy Klobuchar, who immediately name-checked her favorite constituents, “farmers and workers.”

Bernie Sanders, arms waving and, at one point, coming frighteningly close to braining Joe Biden, warned that “we cannot simply be consumed by Trump because if we are we’re gonna lose the election.” And he was off on a laundry list of big problems for which he claims to offer big solutions, “87 million people who have no health insurance or are underinsured…[and] the great existential crisis of our time in terms of climate change.”

Pete Buttigieg lived up to his reputation for rhetorical cleverness by claiming that a monumental Trump offense was being overlooked: “the president had to confess in writing in court to improperly diverting charitable contributions that were supposed to go to veterans,” a subtle reminder that Buttigieg is a vet.

And Biden? He appears ready to live or die by the message that will evaporate if his numbers keep slipping. “I think we have to ask ourselves an honest question – who is most likely to do what needs to be done, produce a Democratic majority in the Senate, maintain the House and beat Trump.”

The debate didn’t start until 9 p.m., a bit late for the OK-but-easily-tired boomer crowd (not to mention their parents, still a crucial constituency). The most viral moments (Biden forgetting Kamala Harris is black, Tulsi Gabbard roughing up Buttigieg and forcing him to use a line I bet he was saving about all the years of DC experience on stage and “where has it gotten us”) came after 10:30 p.m.

But all that – along with the annoyingly disjointed questioning and moderation – might have been overcome if even one of the candidates had chosen to break out of their carefully-constructed mold and connect their passionate contempt for Trump to some fresh explanation of how they’ll persuade skeptical swing voters to dump the devil they know for the Democrat they don’t.

Jon Keller

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