WASHINGTON — Senator Elizabeth Warren argued that Democrats would defeat President Trump if they “draw the sharpest distinction” with what she called the administration’s corruption — and suggested that Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s high-dollar fund-raising would undermine their ability to do that. Mr. Buttigieg said his party could scarcely afford to hew to such “purity tests” in a race against Mr. Trump.
And Senator Amy Klobuchar was even less subtle, repeatedly citing her heartland roots to argue that Democrats could win only if they put a Midwesterner like her “at the top of the ticket,” while recalling that Mr. Buttigieg had been soundly defeated in his one statewide race in Indiana.
In Washington, those who make politics a vocation or an avocation are consumed with this week’s impeachment of Mr. Trump, the branding of a scarlet I upon his tenure. But on the other side of the country, on the Democratic debate stage in Los Angeles, the candidates circled around a different vowel, and a different word — the E word.
As in: “electability.”
Or, rather, which of the candidates running can eject Mr. Trump from the White House next year, now that it’s clear Republican senators won’t offer the votes to convict him.
It’s not that Democrats have been ignoring this hard-to-agree-on question. The matter of who has the best chance to beat Mr. Trump has hung over the primary from the start.
The tricky part about convincing the Democratic electorate, of course, is that different candidates are offering sharply divergent visions of how to do that. In nearly two and a half hours Thursday night, onstage at Loyola Marymount University, here is how the five men and two women who qualified for the debate made their electability case:
Joseph R. Biden Jr., former vice president
Mr. Biden’s argument about being the most electable candidate is increasingly not the subtext of his campaign — it’s the text.
But it wasn’t until the closing portion of the debate that he said Democrats had to be mindful of who can win — and bring some coattails to ensure the party reclaims the Senate.
“Who has the best chance, most likely chance, of defeating Donald Trump, who is the one most likely to do that?” he asked, before continuing: “Who can help elect Democrats to the United States Senate in states like North Carolina and Georgia and Arizona and other states?”
For most of the night Thursday, however, he avoided stating why he’d be the Democrat most likely to win against Mr. Trump, instead trumpeting his knowledge of foreign affairs and boasting that he’s running on his near half-century in politics. “With my experience comes judgment and a little bit of wisdom,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Biden had one of his better debate performances Thursday, in part because he was able to make a succinct pitch for his viability — and even more because he watched two of his most daunting rivals in Iowa, Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren, tangle with each other.
Bernie Sanders, senator
Mr. Sanders does not often make his own electability case. He’s more disciplined about outlining his vision for “a political revolution.”
But at the debate, the democratic socialist said the best opportunity Democrats had to win next year was by energizing new voters.
“Let’s talk about how we win an election, which is something everybody here wants to do in terms of defeating the most dangerous president in American history,” he said. “So let me tell you how you win it: You have the largest voter turnout in the history of America. And you don’t have the largest voter turnout unless you create energy and excitement.”
It was classic Mr. Sanders — contending Democrats win by mobilizing progressive voters rather than by persuading moderates — and it came in a debate in which he repeatedly drove his populist message.
Elizabeth Warren, senator
Ms. Warren has been steadily increasing her criticism of Mr. Buttigieg, and at the debate she confronted him for raising money at an event “in a wine cave full of crystals.”
“Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” she said, arguing that Democrats should shun big money contributors.
And Ms. Warren suggested that Mr. Buttigieg’s fund-raising could compromise him, in what was the most pointed clash of the debate.
“If you can’t stand up and take the steps that are relatively easy, can’t stand up to the wealthy and well connected when it is relatively easy, when you are a candidate, then how can the American people believe you will stand up to the wealthy and well connected when you are president?” she said.
Her offensive against the mayor amounted to a recognition that she needs to make up ground against him in Iowa — and that Democratic voters there may be uneasy with a candidate spending time in that wine cave.
Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind.
After rising to the top of the polls in Iowa, Mr. Buttigieg finally found himself under assault at a debate.
He sought to defuse the attacks against him by arguing that his critics were being naïve about what it will take to defeat Mr. Trump and that he was a more formidable candidate than his age — 37 — may suggest.
“This is our only chance to defeat Donald Trump, and we shouldn’t do it with one hand tied behind our back,” Mr. Buttigieg said in response to Ms. Warren’s criticism about his fund-raising practices.
And when Ms. Klobuchar targeted him for losing a statewide election and his bid for Democratic National Committee chairman, he fired back by highlighting his own capacity to win in the Midwest.
“If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana,” Mr. Buttigieg said.
He proved his dexterity by parrying the attacks against him, but the question is now if he can sustain his advantage after having doubts raised about his candidacy in such stark fashion.
There was no match for Ms. Klobuchar on Thursday when it came to the electability argument.
She turned to her Midwestern roots frequently, arguing that winning big as she said she could would be the only way to address climate change, she boasted of her ability to win rural voters and suburbanites and she lashed Mr. Buttigieg by highlighting his losing races.
“We should have someone heading up this ticket that has actually won and been able to show they can gather the support that you talk about with moderate Republicans and independents as well as a fired-up Democratic base and not just done it once,” she said, citing her three statewide victories.
Even for Ms. Klobuchar, who has always been vocal about why she thinks she’s best equipped to beat Mr. Trump, it was a striking illustration of the degree to which the more moderate candidates believe voters are making their decision based on perceived viability.
And it echoed the new ad she’s running in Iowa, where she’ll either emerge as a happy medium alternative to the older Mr. Biden and younger Mr. Buttigieg or see her hopes dashed.
“I know what it takes to win in the Midwest,” Ms. Klobuchar says in the ad. “It’s not flyover country to me — it’s home.”
Andrew Yang, entrepreneur
Mr. Yang may have had the best line of the night. Or at least the most self-aware one.
“I know what you’re thinking, America: How am I still on this stage with them?” he said in his closing statement.
He then segued to his signature issue — creating a universal basic income for every American — as he has at every debate. It is unlikely to be enough to get him a presidential nomination, but it could make him more of a factor in the early nominating states than the rival campaigns who have dropped out ever expected.
Tom Steyer, former hedge fund manager
Mr. Steyer, a billionaire, continues to make the debate stage thanks to his self-funded advertising blitz. But he plainly recognizes he must present a sharper reason for why he should be the nominee.
“My experience building a business, understanding how to make that happen means I can go toe to toe with Mr. Trump and take him down on the economy and expose him as a fraud and a failure,” he said Thursday. “And I think that’s different from the other people on this stage. I think we need a different, unconventional way of attacking a different, unconventional president.”
But Mr. Steyer risks being drowned out by the din of television commercials being aired by an even wealthier self-funder, who wasn’t onstage but who’s slowly climbing in the polls: Michael R. Bloomberg.