Who Won the Democratic Debate, Night 2? Experts Weigh In

When the candidates took the stage in Miami on Thursday for the second night of Democratic primary debates, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders were the stars. By the time they walked off, all eyes were on Senator Kamala Harris.

Twitter is a bad gauge for public opinion, but a decent source for the assessments of professional observers, including some who know the stakes of debates best: veteran campaign strategists and consultants from both parties. Here is a sampling of responses from them, and from some activists and writers.

From beginning to end, Ms. Harris dominated the debate, starting with a pithy applause line — “America does not want a food fight; they want to know how we are going to put food on the table,” she said, as her rivals shouted over one another — and culminating with a deeply personal exchange in which she confronted Mr. Biden over his record on race and desegregation.

[Read more about Ms. Harris’s moment with Mr. Biden.]

“She proved that she can go after a male opponent without suffering the gender stereotype of appearing overly aggressive or overly ambitious. She looked like a winner, plain & simple.” — Patti Solis Doyle, adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign

“Hell of an exchange on race between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. If Kamala Harris becomes president, it will be because of this moment.” — Frank Luntz, Republican consultant and pollster

“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

“Here are my #demdebate2 rankings: 1. Kamala.” — Zerlina Maxwell, senior director of progressive programming at SiriusXM

[Here are six takeaways from the debate.]

Pete Buttigieg received some tough questions, including one about a police officer’s fatal shooting of a black man in South Bend, Ind., where Mr. Buttigieg is mayor. He has been off the campaign trail for much of the week dealing with the crisis. But his response at the debate, when asked why the South Bend Police Department has not added more black officers during his time in office, impressed some strategists and activists.

“Because I couldn’t get it done,” he said, before adding: “I could walk you through all of the things that we have done as a community, all of the steps that we took, from bias training to de-escalation, but it didn’t save the life of Eric Logan. And when I look into his mother’s eyes, I have to face the fact that nothing that I say will bring him back.”

“I can’t stop thinking about Pete Buttigieg’s answer to that question. It was completely unexpected. Vulnerable, honest, heartfelt, and not one bit of cowardice in it. It was a leader’s answer.” — Charlotte Clymer, spokeswoman for Human Rights Campaign

“Once again, he took responsibility for his failure as mayor to fully address the underlying issues. But he also spoke of the incident in very human terms; of the man who was killed, his family and the impact on his community.” — David Axelrod, former senior adviser to Barack Obama

“If anyone is teaching media training classes for how to speak in English about complicated topics on television—@PeteButtigieg is masterful at it. Never mentions bills, never mentions DC garbely gook.” — Jen Psaki, former spokeswoman for Mr. Obama

Early in the debate, Mr. Biden got some praise from analysts.

“Very smart for @JoeBiden to stick to who he is, what he stands for and not back away from it.” — Jen Psaki

But once he started tangling with Ms. Harris, things went downhill fast. There was little dispute that she came out of their exchanges victorious, and Mr. Biden bruised.

“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, executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service

“If you are the Biden folks tonight, you have two hopes: 1. The poor reviews convince your principal he needs to listen and come to next debate better prepared. 2. Next round of polls don’t register a huge drop, and you can try to act like Harris’s knock-out was a Twitter phenomenon.” — Brian Fallon, former aide to Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer

“Later debates could be more important. But this debate won’t help Biden.” — Laura Belin, Iowa political commentator

Mr. Sanders is one of the highest-polling candidates in the race, with one of the most committed followings. But on Thursday, he struggled to command attention.

“It’s amazing to me how little a factor (outside of the first few minutes) Bernie has been in this debate.” — Mo Elleithee

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand didn’t make as much of a mark as Ms. Harris or Mr. Buttigieg, but she did get good reviews.

“@SenGillibrand is excellent at explaining her evolution from her previous positions — she says she was wrong, she listened, she learned, she changed. That’s what we need to hear from Joe Biden tonight.” — Jess McIntosh, executive editor of Shareblue Media

“Kirsten at her best. Prepared. Committed. Clear.” — Ilyse Hogue, president of Naral

Representative Eric Swalwell was not as well received.

“Good God. I thought nobody could attempt more irritating interruptions than De Blasio last night. But Swalwell is giving him a run for his money.” — Ana Navarro-Cárdenas, Republican strategist

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