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MIAMI, Florida — Former Vice President Joe Biden entered the second of the 2020 Democratic debates as the experienced frontrunner, but the night belonged to Kamala Harris, the senator from California who challenged Biden on race and quieted the stage repeatedly with forceful statements.
The large Democratic field finished the second of two nights of debates with two hours of policy, punches and jockeying for debate time. Here’s who and what stood out.
Within the first half hour of the debate came the first jab of the night against former Vice President Joe Biden, who currently leads the polls. As Biden finished his response, a dissonant chorus of more than half of the other candidates buzzed, trying to seize the moment. Out of the vocal scrum, it was Harris who emerged.
“America does not want a food fight, they want to know how we are going to put food on the table,” she said. After an eruption of applause, Harris laid out her vision for how to ease pressures on working people, saying that Americans should not have to work two or three jobs to stay afloat.
It was the beginning of a string of powerful moments from the California senator. Health care? Harris invoked the image of parents outside an emergency room with a sick child, scared to go inside because of crippling costs. Immigration? She took aim at President Donald Trump, saying his policy is “not reflective of our values and it has to end.” Guns? “I will give Congress 100 days to act,” and if it doesn’t, Harris said, she would use executive action to put far more comprehensive background checks in place.
When the topic turned to race, the stage again erupted with candidates speaking over each other. Harris’s voice once more emerged. “I would like to speak on the topic of race,” she said, acknowledging her identity as the only black candidate on the stage.
Harris spoke of her own experience facing discrimination as a child, before turning to Biden to say it was “hurtful” that he had recently touted his work with segregationist senators. The resulting back-and-forth may have been the most effective challenge to him of the night, as he struggled to explain his past opposition to desegregation busing enforced by the U.S. Department of Education. “That little girl was me,” she said, recalling being bused to a different school in her county. He said that he instead supported allowing local school districts to handle the issue.
Harris came into the debate in roughly fourth place in the polls. She exited having earned attention for both substance and style, the two magic ingredients for any campaign
Ahead of the debate, Biden campaign officials said the former vice president would present himself as a unifying figure. Biden stuck with that plan early on. He criticized Trump at times, but kept the attacks at a minimum and did not go after his Democratic rivals — in theory positioning himself, as he has tried to do in recent weeks, as Trump’s main opponent.
Through the first hour, Biden delivered concise answers on issues like health care and immigration. He talked in broad terms about improving social services without explicitly supporting progressive proposals – an approach that will likely appeal to centrist Democratic voters. Biden also easily swatted away an attack by California Rep. Eric Swalwell, who argued that it was time for the party to elect a new generation of leaders. “Pass the torch,” Swalwell said, using Biden’s own words from decades ago to talk about the next generation of party leaders. Biden smiled and answered, “I’m still holding onto that torch.”
But Biden ran into trouble in the second half of the debate, when Harris challenged him directly on the issue of race, and he gave a rambling answer about his record on civil rights. Biden’s campaign has argued that his record and support among minority voters speaks for itself. But the exchange with Harris proved Biden cannot take that support for granted in the most diverse primary field in history.
Just like in the first debate, Democrats on Thursday night quibbled over the details of health care policy. There were substantive disagreements about whether to abolish private health care insurance, and differences on how to improve health care. Some Democrats, like Biden and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, embraced Obamacare, while others didn’t mention it at all.
But by and large, everyone on the stage agreed that the U.S. government should play a larger role in health care, and move in the direction of creating a universal, single-payer system. A few raised their hands when asked if they’d abolish private insurance in favor of a government-run plan. Their views largely matched those of the Democrats in Wednesday’s debate.
That consensus represents a shift to the left for Democrats on health care, and underscores how the party has become more progressive overall. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who serves in Congress as an independent, has taken credit for the change, arguing he was the first Democratic candidate to advocate for a Medicare for All system. And on Thursday, the Vermont senator was the center of attention during the health care part of the debate.
The question is, do most Americans agree? Sanders noted that Medicare was the “most popular” program in the country, but that may not hold true if participation was compulsory for all and Americans were to lose their health care options. A poll from January from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 56 percent of the public favored Medicare for All, but “incremental changes to the health care system” or optional buy-in plans were more popular.
Trump has seized on this angle, claiming that the Democratic candidates would reduce health care choices. But, like when Sanders cited the president’s actions to undermine the Affordable Care Act, Democrats are betting voters will side with them over Trump.
The night’s centrist candidates — Bennet, Mayor Pete Buttigieg from South Bend, Indiana, and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper — had ups and downs as they tried to steer a middle course.
Buttigieg had some success in talking about his education plan, focusing on families who can’t afford college. And he spoke to Americans of faith, expounding on why Democrats should appeal to religious voters and charging that the Republican Party had lost the moral right to wear the “cloak of Christianity” because under Trump children had been separated from their parents at the border.
But Buttigieg faced a difficult task in trying to explain what he called the “anguish”in his hometown, where a white police officer is under investigation for shooting and killing a black man. While that investigation is ongoing, the mayor said that he wasn’t “allowed to take sides.” Buttigieg aimed to speak to the problem of systemic racism and years of mistrust built up with law enforcement in communities of color. But his empathetic rhetoric may have been eclipsed by his inability to say how he wants to solve the issue as a city leader.
Hickenlooper jumped on Buttigieg on that point, asking why the mayor hadn’t been more effective: “I think that the question they’re asking in South Bend…is why has it taken so long?”
The former governor also took direct aim at progressives, saying, “You can’t promise every American a job.” Hickenlooper touted his past work with both environmental groups and the energy industry, but he did not seem to gain much ground in setting himself apart from the other moderates.
This second debate felt faster and at times choppier than the first round Wednesday night. Moderators asked some 77 questions, adding a few quick-answer rounds, which generally ended up as exercises in the candidates pushing for time by sneaking in long answers.
And that time ended up being lopsided. By NewsHour’s count, the candidates with the most opportunities to speak (either given to them or seized by them) were: Biden, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg and Bennet.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Swalwell got fewer chances. But the largest drop-off was with the three others on stage: entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Hickenlooper and author Marianne Williamson, who all got just three to five chances to speak during the entire debate.
Lisa Desjardins is a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, where she covers news from the U.S. Capitol while also traveling across the country to report on how decisions in Washington affect people where they live and work.
Daniel Bush is PBS NewsHour's Senior Political Reporter.
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