02:13 - Source: CNN
It was Warren and Sanders vs. the rest at the debate

Editor’s Note: Bill McGowan is the founder and CEO of Clarity Media Group, a global communications coaching firm based in New York. He is the author of “Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time.” Follow him on Twitter @BillMcGowan22. Juliana Silva is a strategic communications adviser at Clarity. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN —  

If the devil is, as they say, “in the details,” then all of the Democratic candidates seemed determined not to let the American public get a glimpse of that Beelzebub at Tuesday night’s debate in Detroit. In lieu of policy specifics, what will likely get remembered are a handful of standout moments that help define the candidates in the voters’ minds.

Bill McGowan
Juliana Silva

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, clearly aware that they were in the moderate candidates’ crosshairs, came out swinging from their heels in this third debate, seemingly determined to land more pithy punches than any of their more moderate opponents. On stage, Sanders and Warren were ironically squeezed in the middle of the pack, buffeted by rivals who were determined to make them seem like unelectable non-centrists.

But there were memorable moments. And here’s how they rated on the candidates’ scorecard:

Elizabeth Warren delivered a knockout punch to John Delaney with the zinger of the night, asking aloud why anyone would go to the trouble of running for president only to talk about all the things we can’t get done. But she wasn’t finished there. Her second salvo had her proclaiming to be tired of Democrats who are afraid of big ideas. If anyone at home was playing a drinking game every time Warren said the word “fight,” they would have been unconscious by 9:30 p.m. ET.

Bernie Sanders was determined not to repeat his mistake from the first debate, when he uncharacteristically blended into the furniture with a lackluster performance. This time around, Sanders delivered what seemed like a Red Bull-infused performance, feisty and with skin ruddy with indignation and eyes bulging with impatience for dissenting opinion. You know you have had a memorable moment when they’re making a bumper sticker out of what you said, and for Sanders that was reminding Tim Ryan that he not only understood the benefits under “Medicare for All” but that he “wrote the damn bill.”

While both Sanders and Warren are progressives and anti-establishment fighters, their fighting styles are very different. Sanders seems to have one gear he drives in, and that’s “angry.” Going on harangues is fine, as long as you have a message of hope and optimism to balance it. This is where Warren succeeded over Sanders. She was able to lift spirits in describing future possibilities instead of leaving viewers feeling cheated and fleeced by everyone in the top 1%.

On this night, everyone else seemed like an extra brought in by some casting director, a mere foil for the frontrunners. Rounding out the field of also-rans was:

Beto O’Rourke, who always looks like he’s bobbing and weaving in a boxing ring. His speaking voice also has a numbingly consistent and contrived cadence that makes one suspect that he has studied, in vain, one too many tapes of JFK’s delivery.

Pete Buttigieg finished with a flourish, but it might have been too little, too late. Two of his strong moments came in the waning moments when he looked into the camera and asked GOP lawmakers if when they assess their legacy several years from now, they’re going to be able to say they stood up to this President or whether they will live with the shame of having put their party before their country. His personal reflections on thinking he would be among the last wave of soldiers to fight in Afghanistan served to really humanize Buttigieg, who can at times seem somewhat robotic.

Amy Klobuchar seemed like she could have benefited from borrowing one of Bernie’s Red Bulls. Strangely lethargic, Klobuchar spent way too much time reminding everyone that she comes for the heartland and that she’s likeable and electable.

Tim Ryan is likely to get thousands of resumes tomorrow from people looking to fill the Chief Manufacturing Officer job he kept talking about creating as a sort of Cabinet position in his White House. (In fact, Ryan has already introduced legislation to establish such a position.) The good news for Ryan is that he performed substantially better than he did in the first debate. The bad news is that in the last round, he set the bar so low that you could barely limbo under it.

John Delaney didn’t do badly, but when he tried to go toe-to-toe with Warren, he got his head handed to him.

Steve Bullock seemed to empty the tank too early because his closing statement was a stumbling, staggering mess that undid any good he accomplished earlier.

John Hickenlooper’s closing statement asked us to imagine that tomorrow morning we would be facing life-threatening surgery. Now, there’s an uplifting thought. In our momentary depressed state, I’m not sure a single word he said after that landed.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    Marianne Williamson is developing a reputation for always delivering her own distinctive brand of memorable moments. Admit it: We all secretly look forward to her turn, just for the sheer entertainment value of what she says and how she says it. She declared war on wonkiness, addressed reparations for slavery by talking about “40 acres and a mule” and warned of a “dark psychic force” enveloping the country – all new age-laced rhetoric that feels fresh and new. But the trembling that pervades her hands, head and voice might not instill a sense of confidence in some voters, even if it is driven by genuine emotion.

    The superior performance of the two progressives reinforces one indisputable fact: Playing to win and being bold always eclipses and wins out over playing not to lose and being overly cautious.