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“Running for president is an all-consuming effort for candidates, their families and their staff,” writes VOX ATL’s Alex Ames. “Each person on that stage is committed to the American people, and though we’ll inevitably say goodbye to most of them soon, it was an honor to see them in person Wednesday night.”

VOXClusive: The Very Chilly Scene Inside Atlanta’s Democratic Presidential Debate

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In case you didn’t hear, Atlanta hosted the most recent Democratic Presidential Debate on Wednesday night. Ten candidates, four moderators, and a roomful of Georgia Democrats (myself included) amassed in Tyler Perry Studios for two and a half hours.

Jabs were exchanged, black female senators were forgotten, and Andrew Yang needed a warmer suit.

As I entered the debate venue, ticket in hand, I was surrounded by familiar faces. And by familiar, I mean I’ve seen their faces in the news, though please feel free to assume I’m casual friends with Chair of the Georgia Democratic Party Nikema Williams. Still, it was disorienting to remember that these public figures are “normal people”  just like us.

Andrew Yang jumped up and down on stage to warm up during commercial breaks, Rev. Al Sharpton wandered around jovially, despite calls for the audience to take their seats, and Clarkston Mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Ted Terry helped distribute debate programs in the back rows. Old friends and coworkers mingled outside, union leaders chatted in an oddly upscale portable bathroom, and I even got a friendly “hello” from a few state senators in line.

Once ushered inside the venue, we found our seats underneath a blast of cold November air. Now, I’m not one to pander, but these people had their act together. One by one, party leaders addressed the audience, commending the work of Georgia Democrats to a crowd of Georgia Democrats. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, Georgia State Sen. Nikema Williams (District 39) and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams all graced the stage, and we welcomed their praise with a somewhat self-aggrandizing standing ovation.

What can I say? It’s not often that national politics descend upon our state, and the flattery was more than welcome!

After applauding Stacey Abrams’ every word, I worried briefly if my hands would be sore from clapping. Luckily, however, the frigid temperatures kept them numb and painless. But when U.S. Rep. John Lewis took the stage, a different kind of chill captivated our audience. Legislators, activists, union leaders, and organizers held on to his every word in hushed reverence. Looking into the eyes of this civil rights hero, we were reminded once again why we were here — not to entertain punditry, but to fight for a more just and free future. As he walked off of the debate stage, our initially eager glee was replaced with the low, thunderous applause of a humbled crowd.

Now, I may have said we put aside our punditry and divisions. But that was four hours ago, and now its 1 a.m. and I’m on MARTA, wondering if it was all just some liberal fantasy. But no! I’ve got some hot takes from what was arguably the best debate yet, though I will refrain from arguing “who won the debate” because obviously that’s a personal interpretation.

Why This Was The Best Debate Yet, No Argument: The moderators. The questions. The really fancy portable bathrooms in the parking lot that had two-ply toilet paper. And say what you will about the candidates themselves, but let me assure you that their spouses are a riot. Chasten Buttigieg hugged 60-year-old politicians while beaming for a solid two hours. Now that’s a commendable level of genuine excitement.

Women. Won. This. Debate. Sorry, I lied. There was a clear winner. In the audience, on stage, and in my heart (I’m looking at you, MSNBC host and debate moderator Rachel Maddow). Granted, I’d love to hear more than a name-drop of Georgia’s heartbeat bill abortion ban and of funding for Planned Parenthood. But let me assure you, when those two were mentioned, the audience went wild. Klobuchar’s comment on sexist double-standards in politics and Harris’s defense of paid family leave were also well received by a crowd of predominantly African-American women. But beyond women’s issues, the moderators were four exceptionally qualified women who maintained control of the debate and asked what were, in my opinion, the best questions of the presidential race thus far. Loved them. Loved it. Give me more!

A new variety of topics were welcome: Candidates didn’t spend an hour rehashing the healthcare debate, and that freed up plenty of time to discuss a plethora of other topics — namely, impeachment, diversity, and electability. However, I did miss the commentary on immigration and gun violence that Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro had provided previously. I hope the DNC continues to diversify their lines of questioning in the future.

The National Democratic Party still doesn’t see Georgia as a true target: As I sat in an overcrowded room of Georgia Democrats, I was struck by the divide between the fights on the ground here and the priorities of the party. Don’t get me wrong,  I’m glad a debate was hosted in Atlanta. We deserve it. But when Tom Perez got on stage and commended Georgia Democrats, I couldn’t help but recognize that his praise alone won’t cut it in 2020. The DNC has other targets across the country — Maine, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan. Frankly, Georgia is seen as not worth investment. We’re going to be fighting our own battles against voter suppression this time around. That’s not to say the national party is unsupportive, rather that we can’t rely on them to swoop in and save the day. It’s going to take a while before Georgia is considered a priority, and that’s a tragic but unavoidable truth.

The lady next to me in the audience: This poor woman got flown in from L.A. by Tulsi Gabbard just to watch her worst debate performance yet. Now, that’s just unfortunate. I will say we had some productive conversations about Joe Biden’s speech patterns, though.

Andrew Yang needs a warmer suit: And I needed a blanket. It was fun to watch Kamala Harris attempt to keep a straight face as Yang engaged in vigorous jazzercise during commercial breaks beside her.

The cameraman got a real workout. Did you know this man had a whole robot strapped to his body? Watching him run across stage and jump over wires with Parkour Gym-level agility gave me a new appreciation for pelvic thrusts and slow zooms. Sir, you have earned my respect.

Those candidates… I’ve got to admit, even the ones I don’t favor, I still respect. Running for president is an all-consuming effort for candidates, their families and their staff. Each person on that stage is committed to the American people, and though we’ll inevitably say goodbye to most of them soon, it was an honor to see them in person Wednesday night.

Ultimately, despite a few jabs and gaffes, the stark difference between the behavior of Republicans in Congress now and the behavior of Democrats on stage last night was telling. The Democratic field was patriotic, compassionate, and sincere. Their hunger for progress was tangible, and their debate skills were overall impressive.

Personally, I don’t believe this is a contentious race because Democrats are unable to unite. It’s contentious because all of the very best of the broad Democratic Party  — many of whom are on that stage — are committed to the fight.

The diverse range of voices is not a sign of weakness but a testament to the power and inclusivity of the Democratic Party. I’m confident that debating with a wide range of candidates will well prepare whomever our eventual nominee is for the most important general election of our lifetime. I’m just ready to see who that nominee will be.

Alex Ames attends Chattahoochee High School and is the regional statewide coordinator for Swing Left, a Georgia nonprofit dedicated to electing democrats across the state.

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