BOSTON (CBS) - You know what they say about the three most important factors in real estate – location, location, location.
In Wednesday night's first Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren had the choice real estate, a dead-center stage location dictated by her superior poll numbers. She got the first question and, it appeared, the most talk-time in the debate's crucial early stages.
And for at least the first 45 minutes of the encounter, Warren dominated. Just as her stream of detailed policy proposals have forced her opponents to play catch-up, so too did her familiar populist rhetoric seem to drive the discussion, or as much as was allowed by the unwieldy debate format.
An aside – the structure of this "debate" did no one any favors. As we should have learned four years ago, a double-digit flash mob of candidates on stage is way too many for anything more than a spinoff of "The Apprentice." It yields fragments of disconnected sound bites that left the candidates so frustrated they began ignoring the moderators.
Cable TV has tons of time to fill and an insatiable appetite for debates. Why not break the 20 candidates into groups of five and do four nights of debate instead?
Anyway, there were a few moments last night that seemed to have an impact.
A hyper-aggressive New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio jumped ugly on former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke when the latter came out against single-payer health care that would end private insurance. O'Rourke was a deer in the headlights as de Blasio demanded to know "how can you defend a system that's not working?"
It was left to former Congressman John Delaney of Maryland to step in and say what O'Rourke should have said: "100 million Americans say they like their private health insurance…. We should be that party that keeps what's working and fixes what's broken."
In this primary field, relative moderates are often on the defensive, and that's where Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota found herself on health care. After she not-unreasonably expressed concern about "kicking half of America off their health insurance in four years, which is exactly what [Medicare for All] says," Warren pounced. "There are a lot of politicians who say it's just not possible, we just can't do it…. What they're really telling you is they just won't fight for it."
And the sickest burn of the evening came when Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan defended the endless US military involvement in Afghanistan by saying "when we weren't in there, they started flying planes into our buildings," a malapropism that invited military veteran Tulsi Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii, in for the kill.
"The Taliban didn't attack us on 9/11. Al Qaeda did." Oops.
Most memories of this debate will be quickly erased by Thursday night's event, in which you can expect a senior citizen steel cage showdown between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
But it seemed to me that O'Rourke and Ryan were big losers, while Gabbard and Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee made little impression either way. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was his usual articulate self and walks away undamaged. Klobuchar stuck with her moderate branding and lives on, while Delaney also may have caught the eye of a few centrist voters.
Keep in mind, we're at a point in the process where the goal is to rally the hardcore party activists and ideologues who can, if they rally behind a candidate, dictate the outcome in Iowa and New Hampshire. Those folks have made it clear they love lefty populism, and de Blasio, former HUD Sec. Julian Castro and Warren gave it to them.
It's all about location, location, location. And if it ever comes down to one challenger vs. front runner Biden, the lane for a passionate populist fed up with the status quo and wielding specific plans to overturn it belongs, for now, to Warren.
for more features.