Winners and losers from the Democratic debates in Detroit

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?

WINNERS

Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate 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) RyanDebate crowd erupts in laughs as Sanders chimes in 'I wrote the damn bill' on Medicare for All The Hill's Campaign Report: Late bids surprise 2020 Democratic field Tim Ryan endorses Biden for president MORE (D-Ohio) cast aspersions on his "Medicare for All" plan.

“I wrote the damn bill,” Sanders exploded. 

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Warren had the most striking single moment, telling former Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin Delaney2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum Poll: Biden holds 20-point lead in South Carolina Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne 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 BookerFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate 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 HarrisFive takeaways from the Democratic debate Gabbard, Buttigieg battle over use of military in Mexico Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate 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 TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate 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 BidenFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate 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 Bullock2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Biden, Buttigieg condemn rocket attacks on Israel 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 Williamson2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum 2020 Democrats demand action on guns after Santa Clarita shooting Williamson announces poverty plan with support for universal basic income, minimum wage 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.

MIXED

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 GillibrandMaloney primary challenger calls on her to return, donate previous campaign donations from Trump Senate confirms controversial circuit court nominee She Should Run launches initiative to expand number of women in political process MORE (D-N.Y.) and New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioDe Blasio knocks Bloomberg over stop and frisk apology Deval Patrick enters 2020 race De Blasio slams Bloomberg run for president: He 'epitomizes the status quo' 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 ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Gabbard, Buttigieg battle over use of military in Mexico 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.

LOSERS

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 GabbardFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Gabbard, Buttigieg battle over use of military in Mexico 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.

Centrists

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 Jean KlobucharFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE (D-Minn.), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperKrystal Ball dismisses Rahm Emanuel's 'Medicare for All' criticism as a 'corporatist mantra' Trump says remark about Colorado border wall was made 'kiddingly' Colorado governor mocks Trump for saying he's building wall there MORE (D) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) all floundered. 

Impeachment

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.