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 Harris Harris speaks with Netanyahu amid ICC probe Senate votes to take up COVID-19 relief bill Why is Joe Biden dodging the public and the press? MORE (Calif.)

Harris was patient, lying in wait until she sprung a direct attack on former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot FireEye finds evidence Chinese hackers exploited Microsoft email app flaw since January Biden officials to travel to border amid influx of young migrants 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 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Increased security on Capitol Hill amid QAnon's March 4 date Biden to meet with bipartisan lawmakers on infrastructure The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Lawmakers face Capitol threat as senators line up votes for relief bill 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 WarrenPhilly city council calls on Biden to 'cancel all student loan debt' in first 100 days Hillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case Senators question Bezos, Amazon about cameras placed in delivery vans 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 SwalwellChina has already infiltrated America's institutions Democrats don't trust GOP on 1/6 commission: 'These people are dangerous' The Memo: New riot footage stuns Trump trial 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 BlasioAs Trump steps back in the spotlight, will Cuomo exit stage left? NY lawmakers agree to strip Cuomo of pandemic-related emergency powers The Memo: Cuomo's fall raises questions for media 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 BookerABC names new deputy political director, weekend White House correspondent NJ lawmakers ask Gannett to stop 'union-busting' efforts at 3 state newspapers Hillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case 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 InsleeWashington state officials warn providers offering VIP vaccine access Legislators go after governors to rein in COVID-19 powers Inslee rebukes hospital over vaccine appointments for donors MORE, who's made climate change his signature issue in the 2020 campaign, failed to talk about it on Wednesday night. 


Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersABC names new deputy political director, weekend White House correspondent Ron Johnson forces reading of 628-page Senate coronavirus relief bill on floor GOP pulling out all the stops to delay COVID-19 package 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 HickenlooperThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Third approved vaccine distributed to Americans Democrats hesitant to raise taxes amid pandemic The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump's second impeachment trial begins MORE and Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSenators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China Democrats push Biden to include recurring payments in recovery package Democrats: Minimum wage isn't the only issue facing parliamentarian 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) RyanABC names new deputy political director, weekend White House correspondent Threats to lawmakers up 93.5 percent in last two months Tim Ryan: Prosecutors reviewing video of Capitol tours given by lawmakers before riot 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.