Nine months after 20 Democratic candidates gathered for the first debate of the 2020 primary season, it has come down to two candidates – Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.

Given the circumstances, one might expect a sombre mood with respectful disagreements. Instead it was an at-times feisty affair, with Sanders going on the attack in a way he never did four years ago in his unsuccessful presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton.

If the Bernie revolution is on the ropes, the candidate – who just a few weeks ago was considered the front-runner – isn’t going to go down without a fight.

Both candidates discussed the personal steps that they – as at-risk elderly individuals – were taking to avoid contracting the coronavirus, including limiting their public contacts, having their staff work remotely and holding online rallies and forums.

Both septuagenarian candidates also had a few flubs. Biden referred to the 2009 swine flu as N1HI, not H1N1. Sanders at one point repeatedly referred to coronavirus as “Ebola”.

Biden also made news by promising to choose a woman as his vice-presidential running mate if he were to win the Democratic nomination. Sanders wouldn’t make such a commitment, although he did say his “very strong tendency would be to move in that direction”.

Here’s a look at some of the other key moments and conflicts.

Debating in the time of corona

Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic – and the candidates’ plans for addressing it – dominated the debate.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders elbow tap
Image captionAn elbow bump replaced the pre-debate handshake

Biden spoke of expanding testing, including mandating at least 10 drive-through sites in every state, bringing together global leaders and experts to form an international response to the virus and building new hospitals.

Sanders agreed, adding that hospitals need to be provided with sufficient equipment and personnel to deal with the coming surge of critical patients. He also said the US should “protect” the wages of Americans who lose their job because of economic damage from the crisis.

As the evening unfolded, however, a fundamental difference between the two candidates emerged – and it shouldn’t be a big shock to those who have watched the exchanges over healthcare in any of the 10 previous Democratic debates.

Biden said that the coronavirus was an urgent crisis that required the federal government to cover all costs of testing and treatment.

For Sanders, however, the pandemic was a reflection of the “incredible weakness and dysfunctionality” of the entire US healthcare system, which is structured around a for-profit private industry. He wants the government to pay for every medical ailment, not just this virus.

“In a good year, without the epidemic, we’re losing up to 60,000 people who die every year because they don’t get to a doctor on time,” Sanders said. “It’s clear this crisis is only making a bad situation worse.”

Biden countered that government-run healthcare was not the solution, noting that Italy has a Sanders-style government-run healthcare system that was being overwhelmed by the virus.

Biden wants a publicly run health-insurance option that competes along side private insurers. Sanders wants the government to replace private insurance entirely. In the end, the coronavirus became just a new bullet-point in this much bigger debate within the Democratic Party.

Results or revolution

At one point early in the debate, Biden crystallised the key difference between the two candidates – not just on healthcare but on their entire governing philosophy.

“People are looking for results, not a revolution,” he said. “They want to deal with the results they need right now.”

Biden is an incrementalist. A career political player, he is inclined to work within the system and sees politics as the art of the possible.

Sanders, at his heart, is a revolutionary. He views the current political and economic system as irredeemably broken and in need of sweeping reform. Sanders’ view is that revolution is exactly what’s necessary to bring about fundamental change.

“If you want to make real changes in this country; if you want to create an economy that works for all, not just the few; if you want to guarantee quality health care to all, not make $100 billion in profit for the health care industry, you know what you need?” Sanders asked. “You need to take on Wall Street; you need to take on the drug companies and the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry.”

The question is whether Americans are ready for the kind of real change Sanders is calling for. If the voting results in the Democratic primaries so far are any indication, they may not be so ambitious.

‘The people of America know my record’

The sharpest exchanges came when the two went after each other on past votes and positions.

Sanders hit Biden on his past support for considering cuts to the government-run Social Security retirement programme, as well as his votes for a gay marriage ban, the Iraq War, stringent bankruptcy reform, free-trade bills and prohibitions on public-funding of abortion.

“The people of America know my record, OK?” Sanders said. “For 30 years, I have stood with the working families of this country. I have taken on every special interest there is out there. And that is what I will do in the White House. That’s a very different record than Joe’s.”

Biden countered by hitting Sanders for his past opposition to gun-control legislation and a recent vote against sanctioning Russia for its 2016 election interference.

“Go to the YouTube right now,” Sanders said at one point, urging viewers to see Biden’s 1995 Social Security comments on the floor of the US Senate.

Biden, who has taken many positions over his nearly 50-year political career that are out of step with the current views of the Democratic Party, ultimately defended himself by trying to change the focus.

“The question is,” he said, “what do we do from this point on?

Is this the end?

This Democratic primary debate – conducted in the shadow of the coronavirus outbreak, moved from Phoenix to a Washington, DC, studio at the last minute and held without an audience or a crush of media watching from an adjoining spin room – may end up as the last one of this election cycle.

If so, what a strange and unexpected coda it would be to more than 14 months of campaigning by dozens of candidates.

Polls indicate that on Tuesday Biden is poised to post dominating wins over Sanders in Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Arizona, further extending his lead in the all-important count of delegates to the national convention in July.

National polls give Biden a sizable lead, suggesting that Democratic voters are ready for this race to be over and for the general election contest against Donald Trump – who was only occasionally mentioned in this debate – to begin.

Media caption‘We voted for Obama, then Trump’ – who can win over these swing voters?

Of course, in a post-debate interview Sanders suggested that the he wasn’t sure “it makes a lot of sense” to hold this week’s primaries given the coronavirus outbreak, where many voters – including the elderly – could be in close contact. Two primaries set to be held later in the month, in Georgia and Louisiana, have already been delayed.

If that turns out to be the case, perhaps the Democratic contest – while effectively nearing its conclusion – may linger in a suspended state for some time to come.