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?
Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOn The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Pence-linked group launches 0K ad campaign in West Virginia praising Manchin Senators huddle on path forward for SALT deduction in spending bill MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo Restless progressives eye 2024 Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run 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) RyanDemocrats brace for flood of retirements after Virginia rout Ohio Republicans swing for fences in redistricting proposals Ohio redistricting commission gives up on US House map MORE (D-Ohio) cast aspersions on his "Medicare for All" plan.
“I wrote the damn bill,” Sanders exploded.
Warren had the most striking single moment, telling former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyMaryland Democrats target lone Republican in redistricting scheme Warning: Joe Biden's 'eat the rich' pitch may come back to bite you Direct air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy 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 BookerPoll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall 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 HarrisTrump: McConnell must use debt limit to crush Biden agenda Building back a better vice presidency Stacey Abrams nominated to board of solar energy firm 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 TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension 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 BidenCDC working to tighten testing requirement for international travelers On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Manchin seeks 'adjustments' to spending plan 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 BullockDark money group spent 0M on voter turnout in 2020 In Montana, a knock-down redistricting fight over a single line 65 former governors, mayors back bipartisan infrastructure deal 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 WilliamsonMarianne Williamson: Steven Donziger sentencing is meant to have a 'chilling effect' on environmentalists Marianne Williamson calls federal judge's handling of Steven Donziger case 'unconstitutional' Marianne Williamson calls on Biden to drop efforts to extradite Assange 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.
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 GillibrandGillibrand, bipartisan lawmakers push to keep military justice overhaul in NDAA Klobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Five ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan MORE (D-N.Y.) and New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioFirst NYC safe havens for drug use cleared to open, de Blasio says The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The omicron threat and Biden's plan to beat it NYC officials recommend masks indoors, but won't reimpose mandates 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 ButtigiegPete ButtigiegFeehery: Why Democrats are now historically unpopular Harris, Buttigieg to promote infrastructure law in Charlotte 'Fox & Friends Weekend' hosts suggest new variant meant to distract from Biden's struggles 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.
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 GabbardThe perfect Democratic running mate for DeSantis? Progressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal Hillicon Valley: US has made progress on cyber but more needed, report says | Democrat urges changes for 'problematic' crypto language in infrastructure bill | Facebook may be forced to unwind Giphy acquisition 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.
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 KlobucharKlobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden renominates Powell as Fed chair MORE (D-Minn.), former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Shipwreck sends waste thousands of miles The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The omicron threat and Biden's plan to beat it Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Replacing the 'blood diamond of batteries' MORE (D) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) all floundered.
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.