WASHINGTON -- The unusually tense, argumentative and personal tone of Wednesday night's Democratic debate -- clearly the most contentious of the campaign -- reflected the urgency of the political moment: Most of the candidates on the stage could be out of the race in less than two weeks.
In past debates, when one candidate was perceived as a front-runner, he or she became the target of attacks and scrutiny. As expected Wednesday, former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took a lot of the heat. But with so many political crosscurrents buffeting the other five candidates, the attacks flew in all directions, less like a fire hose pointed at one candidate and more like an oscillating sprinkler.
The multiple exchanges -- Sen. Amy Klobuchar against former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren against former Vice President Joe Biden, Biden against Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sanders against Buttigieg, and so on -- created a free-for-all that actually looked like a debate. Or maybe a prize fight, as Klobuchar said at one point.
The cacophony had one clear result, however. Like most of what has happened in the last two months, it bolstered the prospects of Sanders, the Vermont senator who is the current front-runner. The debate was a two-hour crystallization of the inability of any of his rivals to emerge as a single, clear alternative.
Sanders leads his rivals in polls by a growing margin and is likely to soon be leading in the delegate count as well. Other candidates are jockeying to be the principal alternative, but splitting the vote.
In earlier election cycles, a candidate could catch fire later in the process and still emerge the winner. In 1992, for example, Bill Clinton won only one of the first dozen contests before beginning a run of victories that gave him the nomination.
But the party's heavily front-loaded schedule this year has greatly changed the dynamics. By March 3, when California and 13 other states hold their nominating contests, roughly 40% of the delegates to the summer's nominating convention will have been chosen.
Bloomberg, who has bet his entire campaign on those March 3 primaries, rode into Wednesday's debate on an unprecedented wave of advertising funded by his vast personal wealth. He hoped to portray the race as already a two-man fight between himself and Sanders.
Buttigieg, who had strong showings in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, expressed the anxiety of the candidates who are at risk of being left behind if that happens.
"We could wake up two weeks from today, the day after Super Tuesday, and the only candidates left standing will be Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, the two most polarizing figures on this stage," he said. "And most Americans don't see where they fit if they've got to choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power."