What We Learned From the 2020 Democratic Debates

Mr. Biden’s sometimes meandering debate performance on Thursday night did little to quell the growing sense among his rivals that, while he remains atop the polls, the 2020 Democratic presidential race remains wide open seven months before the Iowa caucuses.

Strategists for Mr. Biden’s rivals are already whispering about whether he has lost a step. He had the ignominious honor of being the only candidate at Thursday’s debate to back away from a fight by cutting off his own remarks. “Anyway, my time is up,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

What has worked on the stump for Mr. Biden — injecting his perceived ability to beat President Trump and his broad defense of American democracy — proved ineffective on a stage filled with fellow Democrats. Mr. Biden name-dropped Mr. Trump three times in his first answer, but what will be remembered was the withering assault on him by Ms. Harris.

Mr. Biden struggled to respond as she drew upon her own race to question his stance on busing and integration. He made a false claim by arguing that his opposition to busing had been limited to fighting the federal government’s role.

That argument baffled Faiz Shakir, Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign manager.

“Are we still debating whether the federal government should have a role over desegregating schools?” Mr. Shakir said.

Almost since her splashy January announcement that she was entering the race, Ms. Harris has been treading water. She has topped out at the mid-to-high single digits in polling. Early-state activists have grumbled about her lack of attention. She has seen her fund-raising figures overtaken, first by Mr. Biden and likely in the next quarter by Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Senator Elizabeth Warren has grabbed the mantle of the race’s pacesetter on policy. And Ms. Harris has vacillated between competing for the party’s most progressive voters and its more moderate wing.

But she commanded the stage on Thursday in a way no one else has done.

With Democrats looking for someone who can go toe-to-toe with Mr. Trump in general election debates, Ms. Harris embraced what many have long seen as two potential advantages she has in a primary where black voters and women are crucial constituencies: she is the most strongly positioned black woman ever to run for president.

“I would like to speak on the issue of race,” Ms. Harris declared, redirecting what had been a conversation on a recent South Bend police shooting to Mr. Biden’s record.

The ensuing exchange over busing, integration and segregationists showcased Ms. Harris at her best. Those scripted prosecutorial skills that have gone viral in Senate committee hearings were witnessed live by millions.

And make no mistake, there was a script. Ms. Harris’s campaign was at the ready with a photo from her childhood and the tagline, “There was a little girl in California who was bussed to school. That little girl was me.” There were even shirts on sale by the night’s end with the picture on them.

The timing of her breakout could not have been better: With the second quarter fund-raising deadline on Sunday, she is poised to get an infusion of cash.

Ms. Warren had the Wednesday night debate to herself among the top five candidates in the polls, and the early minutes showed the remarkable degree to which she has been setting the policy agenda in the contest.

That notion has irked the Sanders campaign, which believes Mr. Sanders deserves credit for pulling the party to the left (Exhibit A: Medicare for All), arguing that his insurgent campaign in 2016 set the stage for the policy discussions the party is having in the 2020 race.

In Thursday’s debate, Mr. Sanders was mostly a non-factor. Advertised as his marquee matchup with Mr. Biden, he instead repeated more than once that the most important thing was which candidate would take on special interests. But he declined to single out Mr. Biden the way he did with Hillary Clinton in 2016.

While Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders debated on opposite nights, the ideological collision course became ever clearer, even as their bases seem to differ demographically. (Ms. Warren’s supporters are seen by both campaigns as skewing older, more female and more educated; Mr. Sanders as more male, younger and blue-collar.)

The two senators are genuinely fond of one another personally, aides say. But more direct confrontations seem inevitable after the debates made clearer than ever that they are the leading liberal standard-bearers in the race.

The chief Republican takeaway from the two debates can be boiled down to this: leading Democrats declared they want to take away your private health insurance and provide coverage to undocumented immigrants.

That may be an unfair oversimplification. But the combined hand-raising exercises over two nights had some top Democratic contenders proudly and visually showing that they supported abolishing private health insurance companies, while every candidate on stage, including Mr. Biden, thrust their arms into the air on Thursday to show their support for providing health care to immigrants who are in the United States without documentation.

There were other moments ripe for Republican operatives to clip, including the extensive conversation about not deporting people whose only crime is being in America illegally — what Mr. Trump would almost certainly frame as an “open borders” position.

“Immigration and health care were gifts to our party, especially immigration,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist who worked for House Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections. “Trump knows how to tap into that issue as naturally as you ride a bike.”

Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and adviser to Donald Trump Jr., also cited immigration and health care as two of the most potent issues to emerge, calling the debates “a prolonged general election attack ad for Republicans.”

One of the hardest things to do in a presidential campaign is to burst from the lower rungs of a contest into the national conversation. Mr. Buttigieg has done it in recent months. And Julián Castro, who had been the mostly forgotten former Obama housing secretary, made his biggest push yet in the first debate as he tore into his fellow Texan, Beto O’Rourke, over immigration.

Across two debates with very few clear winners, he established himself as a forceful presence on the stage and a candidate likely to garner increased attention.

The fact that Mr. Castro had been typecast as mild-mannered has grated on his campaign. “He’s not the loudest person out there, the flashiest person out there, but he’s not like just a wilting leaf,” said Joaquin Castro, his twin brother and campaign chairman.

So on Wednesday Mr. Castro even swore. “It should also piss us all off,” he said of the wrenching photo of a father and 23-month-old daughter who had drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico.

Still, night one of the debates will likely be overshadowed by the fireworks of night two. Will there be any long-term impact?

“I hope so,” Joaquin Castro said. “You don’t want to stay at one percent forever!”

Ten candidates each on two consecutive nights has consequences. It limits the airtime of top candidates. The presence of marginal candidates assures that even so-called lightning rounds drag on. And key confrontations — and thus comparison opportunities for voters — were determined randomly.

Reminder: It was only by a chance drawing that Mr. Biden faced Ms. Harris on stage and not Senator Cory Booker, the other leading black candidate in the race. It was Mr. Booker, after all, who had first called for the former vice president to apologize over his recent remarks about working civilly with southern segregationist senators decades ago.

What was especially clear from the two debates is that the 2020 field has cleaved into separate tiers. And, for now, the top tier is occupied by five candidates: Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders, Ms. Harris, Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg, who delivered a solid, if muted, performance.

Where exactly the next tier begins and ends is murkier.

Mr. Booker, who spoke the most on Wednesday night, is hoping to press into the uppermost tier, and he made a perceptible shift in his message at the debate. Gone were his old calls for a “revival of civic grace” and a “conspiracy of love.” Instead, he repeated that he lives in, as he put it, “a low-income black and brown community.” His team announced that Thursday was his campaign’s second-best day for online fund-raising, after its launch date.

The second tier also includes former Representative Beto O’Rourke, whose first debate performance echoed his recent campaign struggles, and Senator Amy Klobuchar, who drew applause for a remark on abortion rights but didn’t generate significant buzz after the debate. But it is not clear whether Mr. Castro’s strong performance will be enough to keep him in this tier.

Beyond these candidates, everyone else is seeking to join the conversation, led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who assertively pushed her message aimed at women but was overshadowed by Ms. Harris’s star turn.

Andrew Yang, who spoke for only a few minutes, seems poised to gain little traction. But Mr. Yang is already approaching the number of donors needed to advance to the third debate — a threshold only the top tier candidates and Mr. O’Rourke have hit. Marianne Williamson soaked up airtime with her unusual message, which left many scratching their heads.

Jeff Roe, who was the campaign manager for Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, was craving more. He called on Republicans to donate to Ms. Williamson to keep her on stage. He even posted the receipt proving that he had already given her a dollar.

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