Winners and losers from two nights of Democratic debates

MIAMI — The first Democratic presidential primary debates concluded on Thursday after an explosive night of heavyweight fights that reshaped the race for the nomination.

Here are the winners and losers after two hot nights in South Florida: 


Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisSenators introduce bill to award Officer Goodman the Congressional Gold Medal An ally in the White House is good for abortion access, but not enough LeBron James says 'it would be great' for champion Lakers to visit Biden White House MORE (Calif.)

Harris was patient, lying in wait until she sprung a direct attack on former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenMcCarthy says he told Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene he disagreed with her impeachment articles against Biden Biden, Trudeau agree to meet next month Fauci infuriated by threats to family MORE’s record on civil rights in what turned out to be the most explosive exchange of either night.

It was a tense moment — Harris said that she took it personally when Biden said that he had found common ground working with segregationists in the Senate decades ago, and she contrasted Biden’s opposition to a federal busing law with her own experience with busing as a young minority girl growing up in California.


Biden called it a mischaracterization of his life’s work and reminded Harris that she had chosen to become a prosecutor, while he had pursued work as a public defender.

But Harris clearly won the exchange — she “eviscerated” him, as one Democrat told The Hill, and in the process announced herself as a direct challenger to the front-runner.

Harris also got the biggest laugh of the night after a shouting match among the candidates set her up to say, “America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we are going to put food on their table.” Biden turned to her and clapped for that line.

Harris had been criticized coming into the debate for being too scripted and cautious. She was neither of those things on Thursday night and emerged as a clear winner on a stage that was loaded with top contenders. “She’s playing for keeps,” one Democrat told The Hill.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds Biden signs order to require masks on planes and public transportation Senators vet Buttigieg to run Transportation Department MORE

Buttigieg has been one of the biggest surprises in the campaign cycle so far, but he entered the night with a racially charged controversy hanging over his campaign.

The South Bend mayor addressed the officer-involved shooting of a black man in a straightforward way during the debate, taking direct responsibility for what he described as his own failure to address racial tensions between his city and the police department. 

Buttigieg’s remarks won’t extinguish the “anguish” he said residents feel at home, but he struck the right tone for the national audience tuning in.

Elsewhere, Buttigieg came off as the bright, articulate and measured candidate that has earned him rave reviews from Washington insiders and propelled his unlikely ascendance on the national stage.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden's Interior Department temporarily blocks new drilling on public lands | Group of GOP senators seeks to block Biden moves on Paris, Keystone | Judge grants preliminary approval for 0M Flint water crisis settlement Senate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee MORE (Mass.)

Her poll numbers are up. Her policy proposals are a hit with the left. And now Warren has a strong debate performance under her belt.

Debating as the lone top contender on stage on Wednesday night ended up being a major boon for Warren, who stood out amid the weaker field of contenders.

The run-up to the debate couldn't have gone much better for her, and all indications are she’ll continue that momentum into the next phase of the race.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro

Democrats have been eager to draw attention to the conditions for migrants held at detention facilities along the border.

Castro, the only Latino running for president, capitalized, pacing the field with his proposal to eliminate a statute that makes illegal entry into the U.S. a federal crime. 

In a tense exchange on Wednesday night, Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio, cut down former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas) for opposing repeal. 

“I think that you should do your homework on this issue,” Castro said.

And he communicated his outrage at a viral photo that emerged this week of a father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande, saying it should “piss all of us off.” 

Castro was trending on Twitter by the end of the night. A FiveThirtyEight analysis found that his approval rating jumped more than anyone else on the debate stage with him.


Former Vice President Joe Biden

Thursday night’s debate was not a complete disaster for Biden, but the expectations were highest for the front-runner and he leaves Miami looking vulnerable.

The media will want a competitive race and will magnify any misstep he makes, and Buttigieg and Harris both proved on Thursday night to be worthy alternatives for mainstream Democrats looking to shop around. 

Biden missed an opportunity to knock out Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellSwalwell compares Trump to bin Laden: They 'inspired and radicalized' Pelosi names 9 impeachment managers House Judiciary Democrats ask Pence to invoke 25th Amendment to remove Trump MORE (Calif.), a low-polling contender who went after Biden for his age.

He said at one point that the National Rifle Association should not be seen as the enemy, which could come back to haunt him.

And his rivals repeatedly went after his decades-long record, leaving him playing defense on everything from civil rights to his vote to authorize military action in Iraq under President George W. Bush to the Obama administration’s legacy of deportations. 

There is plenty of time for Biden to steady the ship. He has so far endured several controversies and gaffes with no material loss of support in the polls. But the race just got a lot more interesting for the front-runner.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke 

“He got his butt kicked hard,” said CNN political analyst Van Jones.

O’Rourke repeatedly came out on the losing end of the most heated exchanges on Wednesday night. His rivals never thought twice about going after him.

Castro told O’Rourke, who comes from the border town of El Paso, that he needed to do his “homework” on immigration.

And after O’Rourke declined to say whether he would support a 70 percent tax on the wealthy, New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioFauci said second COVID-19 vaccine shot knocked him out for 24 hours Ohio vaccine distributor suspended after improperly storing, spoiling 890 doses Overnight Health Care: Biden signs first executive actions as president | Amazon offers to help Biden with vaccine distribution | Pence delivers coronavirus task force report to Biden MORE jumped all over him. 

“This is supposed to be the party of working people,” de Blasio said. “Yes, we're supposed to be for a 70 percent tax rate on the wealthy.”

O’Rourke’s efforts at speaking Spanish went viral for all the wrong reasons, punctuated by Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerDemocrats seek answers on impact of Russian cyberattack on Justice Department, Courts Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official Booker brings girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson, to inauguration MORE’s (D-N.J.) look as O’Rourke went back and forth between English and Spanish. 

After entering the race with high hopes and a massive fundraising haul, Democrats on the floor of the spin room in Miami were whispering about whether O’Rourke’s campaign is too far gone to save. 

Climate change activists 

The Democratic National Committee has been under pressure to add a debate that focuses solely on climate change, and those calls will likely grow louder after the issue was largely relegated to the sidelines over the course of two nights in South Florida.

Democrats have cast climate change as an existential threat, with some saying it’s the most pressing geopolitical issue the U.S. faces.

But the Democrats spent fewer than 10 minutes on each night discussing their plans to address climate change, even though most of them have trillion-dollar plans to overhaul the U.S. economy on that front.

Even Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeThousands of troops dig in for inauguration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Nine, including former Michigan governor, charged over Flint water crisis | Regulator finalizes rule forcing banks to serve oil, gun companies | Trump admin adds hurdle to increase efficiency standards for furnaces, water heaters Legislatures boost security after insurrection, FBI warnings MORE, who's made climate change his signature issue in the 2020 campaign, failed to talk about it on Wednesday night. 


Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Next steps in the Trump impeachment Sanders selling sweatshirts with his famous inauguration pose for charity Former Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' MORE (I-Vt.)

There were no surprises with Sanders on Thursday night.

He emphatically delivered the rhetoric on income inequality, "Medicare for All" and taxing the wealthy that thrills his supporters and spooks many mainstream Democrats, several of whom were on stage, such as former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperBipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief K Street navigates virtual inauguration week Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE and Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetTop Democrat pushes for tying unemployment insurance to economic conditions 50-50 Senate opens the door to solutions outlasting Trump's moment of violence Build trust in vaccines by investing in community workers MORE (Colo.) 

But Sanders feels Warren rising in the polls, and there are questions about whether he will be able to rebuild the coalition that turned out for him with so much energy in 2016. 

Sanders’s advisers and allies believe he’s being underestimated, but nothing about his debate performance on Thursday changed the dynamics for him.

Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard blasts new House rules on gender neutral language as 'height of hypocrisy' A vaccine, a Burrito and more: 7 lighter, memorable moments from 2020 Growing number of House Republicans warm to proxy voting MORE (Hawaii) 

Gabbard was the most searched candidate on Google on Wednesday night. But what does it mean?

Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran, clearly got the best of Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanJill Biden visits Capitol to thank National Guard Capitol officer claims MAGA hat was part of ruse to rescue colleagues: report Tim Ryan, Rosa DeLauro giving free coffee and donuts to National Guard stationed at Capitol MORE (Ohio) in a heated exchange over U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts.

But much of the coverage of her debate performance was in the right-wing blogosphere. Gabbard won a Drudge Report straw poll, which is utterly meaningless in the Democratic primary, and she was praised for her anti-war stance by the libertarian magazine Reason.

None of that will do anything to endear her to the liberal base, but the media coverage is helpful for a candidate who has struggled mightily to be heard in the crowded field of 24.

Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.)

By most counts, Booker had a strong debate, reminding Democrats that he can be an effective and charismatic communicator when he’s on his game.

The Booker campaign said that after the debate he had his second best day of fundraising since launching his campaign.

The problem is that Booker is on the outside looking in on the the top tier of candidates and there are still a lot of candidates for him to get past.

-- Updated June 28 at 11:38 a.m.