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Democratic debate candidates share personal stories about what made them resilient

Analyzing the third Democratic debate

An alcoholic father. Deaths in the family. Lots of lost races. 

These are some of the things that candidates at Thursday's Democratic debate credited for making them resilient.

The third Democratic debate, held in Houston, closed on a question about the setbacks each candidate has faced, and what made them resilient. The question pushed some contenders to share deeply personal stories, revealing sides of themselves not often seen on the campaign trail.

These are the stories of resilience they shared: 

Joe Biden

The former vice president recounted the deaths in his family — including losing his first wife and daughter in a car accident, and then seeing his son Beau die of brain cancer, which he said was "like losing part of my soul." But he said he had never encountered a setback that stopped him.

"I learned that the way you deal with it is to find purpose," he said, adding that these struggles strengthened his commitment to public service. 

Elizabeth Warren 

The senator from Massachusetts said her childhood dream of being a public school teacher could have snuffed out several times. Her family didn't have money for school. At the end of her first year on the job, she was "visibly pregnant" and the principal hired someone else. But the loss of that job pushed her toward law school, and she went back to teaching before running for office.

"The reason I'm standing here today is because I got back up," she said. 

Bernie Sanders

The senator from Vermont is one of the presidential front-runners now, but he reminded the audience that he got 2% of the vote — or less — in his first races. Once he made it to Congress, he said he had the resilience to go after some of the most powerful forces in the country.

"What resilience means to me is that throughout my career, I have taken on every special interest," Sanders said. 

Kamala Harris

The senator from California said that she was told not to run for every elected position she won, with people telling her, "nobody is ready for you." She became the first women to lead the district attorney's office of San Francisco, and the first female attorney general of California. 

Harris said that when she faced adversity, she remembered words from her mother: "Don't let anybody tell you who you are. You tell them who you are."

Pete Buttigieg

The mayor of South Bend, Indiana said he worried that coming out as gay would be "the ultimate setback," especially in conservative Indiana under then-Gov. Mike Pence. But he felt compelled to do it after returning from his combat deployment in Afghanistan — even though it was an election year. He ended up winning in a landslide.

"What happened was that I trusted voters to judge me based on the job that I did for them, so they decided to trust me, and reelected me with 80 percent of the vote," Buttigieg said. "And what I learned was that trust can be reciprocated."

Andrew Yang

The Venture for America founder said he "flopped" so badly in his first business endeavors that he was thousands of dollars in debt and his parents still told people he was a lawyer. But that was just the rough start in an entrepreneurial career with startups and growth companies that paid off big time.

"One of the secrets to entrepreneurship, if you want to start something tell everything you know that you want to do it and then you have no choice," Yang said.

Cory Booker

The senator from New Jersey joked about how his biggest professional setbacks were all chronicled in an Oscar-nominated documentary, "Street Fight," which captured tires being slashed, phones getting tapped and campaign offices being broken into during Booker's unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

But he said he fell back on the people in his community, who pushed him toward bigger and bolder ideas — and eventually, into victory. Booker ultimately became the mayor of Newark before his election to the Senate. 

"There's an old African saying that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together," Booker said. "The lesson I learned of resilience is to trust people."

Beto O'Rourke

The former congressman from Texas said he learned everything about resilience from his hometown of El Paso — especially after it suffered a mass shooting last month. He was especially moved by meeting with survivors who were fighting for their lives. He said those people "exemplify resilience." 

"The very thing that drew that killer to us is the very thing that helps us set the example for the rest of this country," O'Rourke said. "We don't see our differences as disqualifying or dangerous. We see them as foundational to our success, to our strength and to our security and to our safety."

Amy Klobuchar

The senator of Minnesota opened up about living with an alcoholic father, who said he was "pursued by grace" when he finally sought treatment, and also going in and out of hospitals when her daughter was born with a sickness. The latter motivated her to fight for a new state law on hospital stays, and she says she carries the spirit from those battles in Washington.

"We have to have someone leading the ticket with grit," Klobuchar said.

Julián Castro

The former Housing and Urban Development secretary said he shouldn't have even made it to the debate stage, having grown up with modest means in a single-parent household. He eventually worked his way up to being a lawyer, but an ethics conflict about a land deal influenced him to quit and enter local politics instead.

"It was the first test I had," he said, and he was proud to take a stand on what was best for constituents. 

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