Little-known former Maryland Rep. John Delaney was the surprising tone-setter during the first night of the second Democratic debates on Tuesday. He picked fights with progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and emerged as the leading moderate voice on the stage in the absence of front-runner Joe Biden.
Delaney spoke for less time than six of the 10 candidates, for a total under 11 minutes, according to a tally by debate host CNN. But according to Google, an hour into the debate he received the biggest boost in total searches via the platform. Google said that searches for the candidate increased 3,400%.
The spats between Delaney and Warren in particular were among the most heated confrontations of the evening, highlighting the wedges that divide the Democratic Party on issues like health care and trade.
In one particularly testy exchange with Warren, Delaney said "Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises. When we run on things that are workable, not fairy tale economics."
Warren responded incredulously.
"I don't understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can't do and shouldn't fight for. I don't get it," Warren said.
The absence Biden on Tuesday provided a vacuum for Delaney to fill and gain name recognition and air time, crucial commodities in the crowded field of candidates that is expected to soon be winnowed down. Biden will participate in Wednesday night's debate.
It's not clear whether the confrontational stance Delaney took will deliver him new support.
The first Democrat to enter the primary contest, the millionaire former CEO has yet to gain traction among voters despite prolific personal spending on his own campaign. He was one of the six candidates on stage on Tuesday who fell below 2%, the threshold set by the Democratic National Committee for admittance to the third debates scheduled for September.
But while many of the low-polling candidates sought to pick fights with the front-runners, Delaney seemed to be the only moderate to consistently draw Warren and Sanders into extended disputes.
In a back-and-forth on trade, Delaney said that under Warren's proposal to change the way that the U.S. negotiates trade deals, announced Monday, "we would not be able to trade with the United Kingdom. We would not be able to trade with the EU. It is so extreme that it will isolate the American economy from the rest of the world."
Warren retorted: "What the congressman is describing as extreme is having deals that are negotiated by American workers for American workers."
Some of the sharpest differences were apparent on health care, the top issue among Democratic voters. Delaney has sought, so far in vain, to make a name for himself as the pragmatic alternative to "Medicare for All," the sweeping overhaul proposed by Sanders and supported by Warren and other progressives.
"I'm the only person on stage who understands the business," Delaney, who formerly worked in health-care finance, said at one point.
At another point, he said of Medicare for All, "I've done the math and it doesn't add up."
"Maybe you did that and made money off of health care, but our job is to run a nonprofit health-care system," Sanders responded.