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Who was the real winner?

WASHINGTON – The third Democratic presidential debate Thursday night in Houston was widely billed as a likely war of attrition among front-runners Joe Biden, Elizbeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and a fight for survival among the others seeking traction under the national television spotlight.

Instead, the trio essentially pulled their punches, and with only a few exceptions, conciliation and congeniality ruled the roost. After three lively hours, the Democratic Party emerged unscathed and even strengthened in a collective display by a field of worthy contenders to take down Donald Trump next year.

Biden, the former vice president, appeared to hold his own in what turned out to be a constructive showcase of the quality and temperament of the party’s would-be future leaders. Biden, Warren and Sanders offered their competing plans for health care insurance, which could be decisive in determining the nominee. Biden made a convincing case for keeping and expanding Obamacare, and both Warren and Sanders argued for the latter’s Medicare for All plan that would replace it.

As candidates pitched for government-run universal coverage designed to slash medical and drug costs, Biden reminded viewers that holders of private-industry plans would surrender millions of dollars in premiums paid for by employers and trade unions.

In the end, the debate failed to provide any clear resolution of the front-runners’ competition, while giving a few of the other candidates grounds to warrant consideration thanks to impressive presentations of their policy advocacies.

Former Obama administration Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, perhaps unwisely, took a cheap shot at Biden by jumping on an observation that seemed to cast Biden as undercutting his old boss, Barack Obama, and mocking Biden as a forgetful or careless elder citizen.

The former veep, questioned about the heavy deportation of Latinos during the Obama administration, at first noted he was vice president not the president. Subsequently, he observed defensively that Obama “did the best thing that could be done at the time.”

Castro and Sen., Cory Booker of New Jersey both called Biden on invoking Obama when it served his purposes but begging off when it didn’t. But Biden held his ground moments later, saying: “I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good, bad and indifferent. That’s where I stand.”

In the first Democratic debate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California had scored points by attacking Biden over school busing to combat racial segregation. This time she was less aggressive and seemed to fade into the woodwork.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg continued to impress with quiet wisdom beyond his 37 years, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke made a case for gun legislation. But Biden was categorical in demanding renewal of the 1994 ban on assault weapons intended for war, saying flatly he would get them off the streets, including buying them back from current holders.

As for the format by ABC News, the lesser number of debaters sharpened the exchange, and the inclusion of foreign policy gave Biden a chance to tout his years of diplomatic experience that none of the others could approach.

In the final segment, when the candidates offered reasons they’re running, Biden’s familiar story of family loss and grief was an emotional highlight of which he made the most. He cast his personal saga as one sustained and driven by his sense of purpose and public service, with Biden picking himself up after each setback and pressing on.

In all, the Democratic Party collectively had reason to feel that in what might have been a long night of long knives carving up the leading contenders, it had instead put its best foot forward, relatively unified to find its way out of the Trump nightmare.

The challenge now is to maintain that unity and purpose through the months ahead, as the field dwindles and the focus on ousting the incumbent intensifies, either by restoring Democratic normalcy or charting a more progressive course.