At the First Debate, an Audio Snarl and a Traffic Jam – The New York Times

There was a scrambling-for-the-lifeboats energy to the debate, everyone well aware that there will be only so many seats to carry rivals to the more selective debates of the fall. Candidates came with targeted pitches and zingers and catchphrases familiar to the faithful audience. (Ms. Warren got some of the night’s biggest cheers referencing her “I have a plan” mantra.)

It was, nonetheless, a change from the pro-wrestling 2016 debates that introduced Donald J. Trump as candidate. The disagreements were sometimes sharp but not insulting. No one attacked a moderator, and the moderators, while calling out candidates for evading answers, didn’t prod one-on-one fights as sometimes happened in the last cycle.

If a season of debates is like a TV serial — arcs developing over time, each episode drawing on conflicts introduced in the last — this one was a big ensemble pilot with a lot of exposition and some quick sketching of themes, aspirants cramming bits of stump speech into one-minute answers.

This seemed to stifle candidates like Mr. O’Rourke, the former punk band member who favors long windups building to emotional choruses. Notably, the poll leaders did not come in for much direct attack, but — perhaps seeming a more vulnerable or safer target — Mr. O’Rourke did, from Mr. de Blasio and the former housing secretary Julián Castro, who stood out with passionate answers throughout the night.

Even if the debate didn’t shed much light, the stage did. NBC built a high-luminosity arena of technodemocracy, every possible surface glowing, the candidates parked at translucent prisms that glowed blue and winked red when they spoke. (A bit of mixed partisan-color messaging.) The opening backdrop, what appeared to be an elongated, low-rise rendering of the White House — or at least a white house — matched the field: wide and with a lot of room, but with stature only toward the middle of the stage.

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