Summer Debate Recap: How Did the Top Four Candidates Perform Last Time?

HOUSTON — Ahead of Thursday’s debate, we looked back at how the leading Democratic candidates — Joseph R. Biden Jr., Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — performed in the first two debates.

Here’s a refresher on the high points, and low points, including some of the more memorable lines of the primary race so far.

After a shaky performance in the first debate, Mr. Biden was somewhat steadier in his second appearance, including when he reached for a classic Bidenism to respond to talk from his opponents about “Medicare for all” and the failings of the current health care system. “This idea is a bunch of malarkey,” he said, before warning about what a Medicare-for-all system would cost.

Mr. Biden was on the receiving end of the most memorable attack in the debates so far, when Senator Kamala Harris of California confronted him over his comments about segregationist senators and his record on busing.

“There are very few candidates who are able to connect on an emotional and personal level with voters the way Joe Biden typically does. But in that exchange with Harris, when she looked at him and gave an intensely personal anecdote, he fell far short of doing so.” Mo Elleithee, former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, on the first debate

“@JoeBiden finally played the card he should have played in the last debate when @KamalaHarris challenged him on race. @BarackObama vetted his record and nominated him for Vice President.” David Axelrod, former chief strategist for President Barack Obama, on the second debate

It’s usually the moderator who cuts off a candidate. In this case Mr. Biden did it to himself, bringing to a close his lackluster response after Ms. Harris confronted him.

Ms. Harris’s attack on Mr. Biden over race and busing gave a jolt of energy to her campaign, attracting a surge in donations and a bump in the polls. By invoking her personal story, Ms. Harris also contrasted herself as a young, fresh face in the Democratic Party, as opposed to Mr. Biden’s elder statesman status.

In the second debate, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii targeted Ms. Harris with a fierce attack on her record as a prosecutor. Ms. Gabbard said Ms. Harris owed an apology to “the people who suffered under your reign.” Though Ms. Harris has defined herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” Ms. Gabbard’s attack highlighted a part of Ms. Harris’s career that can be wielded against her in the primary race.

“Harris directly confronting Biden on busing/segregationists was historic, powerful, and unimaginable on a presidential stage until very recently, which is itself symptomatic of a world Biden is struggling to defend.” Rebecca Traister, writer-at-large for New York magazine, on the first debate

“@KamalaHarris has been on defense all night. A stark difference from the first debate.” Patti Solis Doyle, campaign manager for Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, on the second debate

After Ms. Harris confronted Mr. Biden over busing, her campaign tried to capitalize on the moment by selling T-shirts showing a picture of Ms. Harris as a young girl.

Mr. Sanders has put a big focus on his signature policy proposal, creating a Medicare-for-all system in the United States. “I wrote the damn bill!” he declared during the second debate. He has not let voters forget it: He has used the line many times on the campaign trail since then.

During an exchange about climate change at the first debate, Mr. Sanders raised his hand to signal that he wanted to speak. But the moderators ignored him and turned instead to John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado. The moment typified the night for Mr. Sanders, who at times all but disappeared from the conversation even as his ideas took center stage at the debate.

“These Bernie lines seem very familiar. Is he there or just a hologram?” Mr. Axelrod on the first debate

“I tend to think candidates who do best in debates are the ones who appear the most committed to whatever it is they are selling. Hands down Bernie wins the health care section — most Dems are with him on it, and he showed outrage and anger when the gnats swarmed.” Scott Jennings, Republican strategist and adviser to Senator Mitch McConnell, on the second debate

The line came during an exchange with Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio. The Sanders campaign quickly offered “I wrote the damn bill” stickers in exchange for campaign donations.

Ms. Warren found a convenient foil in John Delaney, the former Maryland congressman, who argued in the second debate that the progressive policies she advocates were unrealistic. Ms. Warren’s candidacy revolves around the idea of fighting for sweeping change, and her comeback to Mr. Delaney — expressing bafflement about why someone would run for president with a message of discouraging big ideas — packed a punch.

Ms. Warren made it through the first two debates without any glaring missteps. But one moment could be used against her in the future: when she raised her hand in support of abolishing private health insurance. A supporter of Medicare for all, Ms. Warren makes no apologies for taking that position. But her stance could provide ammunition to those seeking to paint her as too extreme in her progressive policies, including President Trump if she were to become the Democratic nominee.

“They could teach classes in how @ewarren talks about a problem and weaves in answers into a story. She’s not just wonk and stats.” Christina Reynolds, spokeswoman for Emily’s List and former aide to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, on the first debate

“Big difference in communication style: Sanders answers health care question by railing against the big health care companies. Warren answers by personalizing the issue, telling the story of a real person. The first is designed to rile people up. The second, to draw them in.” Mr. Elleithee on the second debate

One thing is certain on Thursday night: This particular fight will not be revived, as Mr. Delaney failed to qualify for the debate.

Sydney Ember and Katie Glueck contributed reporting from New York, and Astead W. Herndon from Houston.

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