There Were 3 Women Onstage, and a Man Had a Lot to Say About His Work on Abortion

It took 30 minutes or so for Senator Elizabeth Warren to wind toward well-worn territory for her: a riff on the evils of insurance companies. “It’s not working for families,” she said, “But it’s sure as heck working for them. It’s time for us to make families come first.”

It took barely a moment more for another familiar scene: a male peer cutting in as she spoke.

“It should not be an option in the United States of America for any insurance company to deny women coverage for their exercise of their right of choice,” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington interjected, pounding the air with his fist. “And I am the only candidate here who has passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive health in health insurance.”

Two years ago, Senator Mitch McConnell famously silenced Ms. Warren on the Senate floor, delivering a scolding (“nevertheless, she persisted”) that became the unofficial tagline of her presidential-campaign-in-waiting. This time, Ms. Warren had backup.

As Mr. Inslee spoke about his singular work on reproductive rights, Ms. Warren’s Washington peer, Senator Amy Klobuchar, could not suppress a smirk. She tilted her head, rocking a bit in place. She turned away, then back again. And then she piped up.

“I just want to say,” Ms. Klobuchar began, faux-meekly, “there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.”

Applause filled the theater. Ms. Klobuchar looked down briefly, plainly sensing she had landed it.

In one exchange, a central tension of this Democratic primary — how male candidates move through a sprawling field with several formidable female contenders — exploded in a hail of cross-talk and well-timed swagger. The presidential primary debate on Wednesday was the first ever to include multiple women onstage: Ms. Warren, Ms. Klobuchar and Representative Tulsi Gabbard. Ms. Klobuchar made a point of noting that fact directly.

Recent presidential history is pocked with examples of male candidates flubbing the task of debating beside a woman. In a 2008 primary debate, Barack Obama turned off female viewers with an aside that Hillary Clinton was “likable enough.” In 2016, President Trump once followed Mrs. Clinton so closely around a debate stage that her campaign accused him of “menacingly stalking.”

[Sign up for our politics newsletter and join the conversation around the 2020 presidential race.]

Wednesday was an occasion, often, for more careful comportment. Senator Cory Booker, the confrontation-averse vegan who speaks of “radical love” and bipartisan possibilities, slipped into his best performative listening face, turning his body toward Ms. Warren, on his left, during her responses. Former Representative Beto O’Rourke, towering over Ms. Warren on her other side, did much the same, though he never quite seemed to know what to do with his hands, which moved anxiously from his lectern to his midsection throughout the night.

Yet in an unwieldy field, with two dozen Democrats straining to fit into the presidential primary’s class photo, the pressure to stand out is considerable, compelling some candidates to try for a difficult balance: establishing a contrast without appearing to step on female contenders, while signaling their dedication to gender equality.

Julián Castro, a former housing secretary and San Antonio mayor, promised to pursue equal pay legislation. He also earned an applause break for mentioning the Equal Rights Amendment, the effort that stalled out decades ago and that some states are reviving. He spoke forcefully about the need for not just reproductive rights, but also what is known as reproductive justice.

“What that means,” he explained, “is that just because a woman — or let’s not forget someone in the trans community, a trans female — is poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose.”

[We tracked down the 2020 Democrats and asked them the same set of questions. Watch them answer.]

Mr. O’Rourke, reciting his health care goals using a voter anecdote from Laredo, Tex., held forth on the importance of ensuring “every woman can make her own decisions about her own body.”

Then there was Mr. Inslee, eager to emphasize his executive experience on a stage filled largely with Washington lawmakers. On two occasions, he appeared to tweak Ms. Warren’s 2020 signature: her raft of policy proposals, enshrined on a popular campaign T-shirt that reads, “Warren Has a Plan for That.”

“I think plans are great, but I’m a governor,” Mr. Inslee said early on.

“I respect everybody’s goals and plans here,” he said later, in his abortion rights flourish. “But we do have one candidate that’s actually advanced the ball.”

By then, Ms. Klobuchar had already begun to smile.