Democratic debate winners and losers: How did the second round of 2020 candidates fare?

Ten candidates and two very different objectives: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris needed an assured performance, everyone else had to make a splash

Dave Maclean
New York
Thursday 01 August 2019 09:11
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CNN Democratic debate: Best moments from day two

With a major cull of candidates in sight, the second half of this Democratic presidential debate quickly got fiery.

The two frontrunners – Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – were pitted against each other from the start, with a question on their differing approaches to healthcare policy.

It wasn’t long before the underdogs began throwing grenades from the sidelines.

Biden and Harris likely went into this debate looking to put in a solid, assured performance, while dinging their main rival where possible.

For everyone else, it was to make enough noise, to catch enough eyes, to rally enough undecided voters, to help boost their poll numbers and fundraising efforts to help them avoid the cut before September’s trimmed-down debates.

Winners

Cory Booker

His opening statement was disrupted by hecklers shouting at Bill de Blasio over the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD. He then disappeared for a while, before coming back to hit Joe Biden repeatedly over criminal justice reform with some choice language. Booker showed none of the deference you’d expect from a young senator to a veteran politico who served eight years as vice president – at one point dismissing Biden’s “phony rhetoric” – but that ruthlessness made his performance all the more memorable.

Kamala Harris

This wasn’t in the same ballpark as her performance in the first debate, where she confronted Biden over bussing. But, after a shaky start where she sounded flustered by Biden’s energetic opening, she regained her footing. There was one uncomfortable moment when Tulsi Gabbard questioned her record as a prosecutor – but she didn’t fold. She’ll mark this debate as a net positive.

Bill de Blasio

All polling numbers suggest he’s got zero shot at winning this thing. He’s even widely disliked in his own city. But his undisputed strength is in debating. The most striking moment for him came when he asked Biden whether he tried to slow the number of deportations when he was vice president.

“You want to be president of the United States, you need to be able to answer the tough questions,” De Blasio said to Biden. “I guarantee you, if you’re debating Donald Trump, he’s not going to let you off the hook.”

Tulsi Gabbard

After a quiet first half, she managed to hit Harris harder than Biden did at any point in the evening by pinning her down on her record as California’s attorney general. It’s a very fertile line of attack for progressives, though, and Harris knows this. She was prepared, but it was an uncomfortable moment for her.

She also used her clout garnered from two tours of duty in the Middle East to good effect, saying: For too long we had leaders who have been arbitrating foreign policy from ivory towers in Washington without any idea about the cost and the consequence the toll it takes on our service members.”

Losers

Joe Biden

He was hit from every angle and simply didn’t appear to have the agility to deal with it. He started off with spark when challenged on his healthcare plans, but fell back to his typical mumbles and stumbles under pressure later in the debate. While Harris converted jibes from the sidelines into jabs at her main rival, Biden found himself becoming the punching bag of everyone from Booker to De Blasio. He was, on more than one occasion, happy to immediately stop speaking when moderators asked him to finish his answer, which is generally the sign of a politician in trouble.

Kirsten Gillibrand

She had one of the more memorable lines of the night (promising to deep clean the Oval Office if she became president), but failed to make a significant overall impact. At one point, she appeared to be so caught off-guard by being called upon by moderators that there an awkward pause of several seconds as she gathered her thoughts. Unluckily for her, when she was getting into her stride on gender equality, the moderators cut her off.

Andrew Yang

He looked like a deer in the headlights in the first debate, and needed a breakout moment on Wednesday night. Repeatedly banging the drum for his $1,000-a-month guaranteed income plan wasn’t close to enough.

Michael Bennet

Considering he’s a rank outsider in the race, with little name recognition, he got a lot of face-time with the American public. He seemed to chip in on almost every exchange for an extended period of time – with his hand in the air like the earnest know-it-all at the front of the classroom. But none of the interventions felt significant enough to cut through at home.

Jay Inslee

Strong on climate, forgettable on most other topics he chimed in on.

Julian Castro

Effectively anonymous tonight.

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