SOUTH BEND – Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders were separated by only a few feet, but by more than 40 years in age. Mayor Pete, 37, and Sen. Sanders, 78, were situated next to each other at the Democratic presidential debate Thursday night in accord with their standings in the polls.

Is one too old? Passé? Is the other too young? Not ready? Is there some other candidate who’s just right, not necessarily with age but with electability? Viewers could draw their conclusions as they watched the performances of the 10 leading candidates for the Democratic nomination. It’s a diverse group. And the different approaches of Buttigieg and Sanders were shown clearly as they stood side by side in the long and tense debate.
Sanders, intent on furthering his 2016 “revolution,” called for sweeping changes, including Medicare for all. He and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are farthest left in the Democratic spectrum. Warren did better than Sanders and could become the top progressive contender for the nomination.
Buttigieg, appealing for something more popular in Middle America, also called for universal health coverage, but with recipients having a choice of retaining private plans. He and former Vice President Joe Biden are for a more moderate, less costly approach, building on Obamacare rather than sweeping it away.
Beyond differences over policy, Sanders and Buttigieg were opposites in style. Sanders looked angry. And sounded angry as he thundered on with rhetoric so familiar from his 2016 campaign. He yells in a way that enthuses a crowd of his supporters at a rally. That doesn’t work as well with folks at home, many uncommitted, watching his spiel on their TV screens.
Buttigieg looked pleasant, likeable, and sounded thoughtful, reasonable, a style so familiar now in his myriad TV appearances. He wouldn’t do well at a rally of adoring fans of Bernie. His style, however, works well for those folks watching a debate at home.
While Sanders seems to be slipping some nationally, he remains one of the top three contenders, still with a loyal base, and he is positioned to do well in the first actual tests with voters, Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. He can’t be written off yet for the nomination.
While Mayor Pete seems to be gaining stature nationally again after momentum stalled amid focus on South Bend crime, he remains out of the top tier, fifth in most polls. He tries now to get positioned well in Iowa and New Hampshire. He can’t be written in yet for the nomination.
One of the candidates seems to have written himself off. That’s Julian Castro, who never made much headway anyway. His personal attack on Biden, in which it was Castro who didn’t remember the facts, drew boos in the audience at the debate site and virtually unanimous criticism from TV commentators, one of whom described his performance as about as popular as appearance of a skunk at a garden party.
Nobody else clearly self-destructed. Some others, notably Beto O’Rourke, breathed new life into campaigns that seemed stalled. Biggest winners?
Pending new polling, it appears that both Biden and Warren could be regarded as achieving the most for their purposes, Biden for withstanding the attacks that come for a frontrunner and for drawing a clear distinction between his approach to medical care and that of Sanders, who proclaimed again that he “wrote the damn bill.” Warren for presenting her progressive agenda without yelling or attacking anyone and calming fears that she would come across in a debate with President Trump as a wild-eyed socialist.
Mayor Pete offered the best advice as he intervened amid the Castro tirade to warn that negative brawling reminds viewers of “what they cannot stand about Washington” and makes them tune out debates as “unwatchable.” 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.