Democrats came to Detroit for their second round of presidential primary debates on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Who emerged as the winners and losers as the dust settled in the Motor City?
Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.)
The two leading left-wing candidates had a good night on Tuesday — and were helped along when the second night’s debate degenerated into a messy fight with more clear losers than winners.
On Tuesday, Sanders was the strongest candidate across the two hours, his performance including a memorable rebuttal when Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanMinnesota AG Keith Ellison says racism is a bigger problem than police behavior; 21 states see uptick in cases amid efforts to reopen Congress must fill the leadership void Pelosi pushes to unite party on coronavirus bill despite grumbling from left MORE (D-Ohio) cast aspersions on his “Medicare for All” plan.
“I wrote the damn bill,” Sanders exploded.
Warren had the most striking single moment, telling former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyThe Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what ‘policing’ means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight Minnesota AG Keith Ellison says racism is a bigger problem than police behavior; 21 states see uptick in cases amid efforts to reopen The Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan says there will be consequences from fraying US-China relations; WHO walks back claims on asymptomatic spread of virus MORE (D-Md.), “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
But it wasn’t just snappy one-liners that helped the two progressives.
The various centrist candidates ranged against them never landed a strong punch. Warren and Sanders, who are personally fond of each other, didn’t rise to any bait encouraging them to attack each other, either.
They have every right to leave Detroit happier than any other candidates.
Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants Black lawmakers unveil bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-N.J.)
Booker did well on Wednesday — something which was vital for a candidate who has struggled for traction and was overshadowed by Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook McEnany says Juneteenth is a very ‘meaningful’ day to Trump MORE (D-Calif.) in the first debates in Miami in June.
Booker sought at some points to cast himself as a unifying figure, lamenting that President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE would be happy that Democrats were allowing themselves to be pitted against each other.
But that appeal for civility didn’t stop him from mounting his own sharp attacks on former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE for his record on criminal justice. He also hit Biden hard for invoking President Obama at times, only to sidestep more awkward elements of the 44th president’s record.
“You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not,” Booker said.
The New Jersey senator did not have any single game-changing moment. But he at least finally asserted himself as a significant figure in the race, after months when he has seemed peripheral.
Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockKoch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators Overnight Energy: US Park Police say ‘tear gas’ statements were ‘mistake’ | Trump to reopen area off New England coast for fishing | Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues in battle to save seats MORE (D)
Every debate offers an opportunity for an obscure candidate to gain some visibility.
In Detroit that was Bullock, who outperformed expectations in a big way on Tuesday evening.
Over the course of the two debates, Bullock was the only centrist, with the exception of Biden, to make his case with force and conviction.
It’s still very hard to see a path into serious contention for the Montana governor.
But he couldn’t have realistically done any better.
Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson touts endorsements for progressive congressional candidates The Hill’s 12:30 Report: Warren becomes latest 2020 rival to back Biden The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden looks to stretch lead in Tuesday contests MORE
Williamson is on her way to becoming something of a cult figure, helped along by her description of a “dark psychic force” she said had been loosed upon the nation by Trump.
That remark, on Tuesday night, went viral.
Williamson is a rank outsider, but she is transcending much of the mockery aimed toward her, as when she drew praise among progressives for her comments on reparations.
Former Vice President Joe Biden
Biden could not afford another misstep after his faltering performance in Miami, where he was the clear loser in clashes with Harris.
He was far better in Detroit. He rebuffed challenges from lower-tier candidates like Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Warren, Pressley introduce bill to make it a crime for police officers to deny medical care to people in custody Senate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers MORE (D-N.Y.) and New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioProtesters splash red paint on NYC streets to symbolize blood De Blasio: Robert E Lee’s ‘name should be taken off everything in America, period’ House Democratic whip pushes back on calls to defund police: We need to focus on reform MORE (D) with relative ease. He also showed, for the most part, much more fire in his belly — an important mark for a candidate whose age, 76, is a concern.
But, for all that, it was far from a home run for Biden. There were still times when he seemed to wilt in the face of the sustained attacks on him and his record.
He also struggled or dodged on some issues, including whether he supported President Obama’s actions on deportations.
Right at the start of the debate, Biden was also heard telling Harris, “Take it easy on me, kid” — a suboptimal choice of words, even if delivered in characteristically affable style.
Biden steadied some nerves in Detroit, but he didn’t come close to answering all the questions that still hang over his candidacy.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE (D)
Buttigieg outraised every other candidate during the second quarter of the year. For a while, he was the media flavor of the month too.
The question of how Buttigieg can really propel himself toward the nomination still has no real answer, however.
His performance on Tuesday night was steady and measured. But it also didn’t have any obvious moment of drama.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)
Harris was the indisputable star of the first debates in Miami, but it was a very different story in Detroit on Wednesday.
The hunter became the hunted as Biden and Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardGabbard drops defamation lawsuit against Clinton It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process 125 lawmakers urge Trump administration to support National Guard troops amid pandemic MORE (D-Hawaii) took particularly forceful shots at the California senator.
Biden accused her of “double talk” on her recently released health care plan.
Gabbard delivered the strongest critique yet of Harris’s record as a prosecutor in California, where she served as district attorney in San Francisco and, later, as the state’s attorney general.
Harris seemed wrong-footed by the attacks, with her answers often flat and lacking in specifics.
There was nothing truly disastrous in Harris’s performance. But it was not a good night for her by any stretch.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas)
O’Rourke has been the single biggest disappointment of the campaign so far among Democrats.
His bid was launched with much hype in March and has fizzled ever since.
O’Rourke made almost no impact on Tuesday night in Detroit — another missed opportunity that he could ill afford.
He has qualified for the third round of debates, to be held in September, but there are now serious question marks over how long his campaign can last.
The energy in the Democratic Party is very clearly on the left, and these debates didn’t change that.
On Tuesday, centrists like Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Democrats demand Republican leaders examine election challenges after Georgia voting chaos Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-Minn.), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperGun control group rolls out first round of Senate endorsements The Hill’s Campaign Report: Republicans go on attack over calls to ‘defund the police’ Hickenlooper ethics questions open him up to attack MORE (D) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) all floundered.
Progressives are as adamant as ever that Trump should be impeached, but these debates underlined how far that has receded as a serious possibility.
Impeachment barely came up at all, save for a perfunctory exchange about 10 minutes before the end of the second debate.
It was a startling signal of how much heat has gone out of the issue.
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