Harris bloodied Biden, but he's not out — Warren and Buttigieg on the rise

The conventional wisdom for once is right: Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris says she hasn't 'made a plan one way or another' on meeting Supreme Court nominee Compromise, yes — but how? A pre-debate suggestion Biden must clarify his stance on energy for swing voters MORE had her breakout moments in the Democratic presidential debate Thursday night, and Joe BidenJoe BidenTop House Republican calls for probe of source of NYT Trump tax documents Judge's ruling creates fresh hurdle for Trump's TikTok ban Harris says she hasn't 'made a plan one way or another' on meeting Supreme Court nominee MORE reinforced fears the times may have passed him by.

Before the forums, I predicted little would change. I think that's basically right, except Harris, Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's tax bombshell | More election drama in Pennsylvania | Trump makes up ground in new polls New Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Democrats blast Trump after report reveals he avoided income taxes for 10 years: 'Disgusting' MORE and Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegCindy McCain joins board of Biden's presidential transition team Billionaire who donated to Trump in 2016 donates to Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November MORE did what they had to and more. Back-of-the-pack aspirants Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats tee up vote on climate-focused energy bill next week | EPA reappoints controversial leader to air quality advisory committee | Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' Senate Democrats demand White House fire controversial head of public lands agency Next crisis, keep people working and give them raises MORE and Julian CastroJulian CastroSanders says Democrats should have given more speaking time to progressives Castro says DNC should have put more Latino speakers on stage from beginning Jill Biden defends husband's cognitive ability from Trump attacks: 'It's ridiculous' MORE also elevated their low profiles.

Bernie SandersBernie SandersPresident Trump faces Herculean task in first debate The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Trump's tax return bombshell New Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments MORE was his same old self.

ADVERTISEMENT

Biden, Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeJimmy Carter says his son smoked pot with Willie Nelson on White House roof O'Rourke endorses Kennedy for Senate: 'A champion for the values we're most proud of' 2020 Democrats do convention Zoom call MORE and the other dozen on the stages, can only hope for another day.

One important caveat for Harris, who more than any was the star of the two days: For the second time she sowed confusion on her position on eliminating all private health insurance. In the debate she and Bernie Sanders raised their hands affirmatively on that question, as did Warren the night before.

The next morning, she was backing away, lamely claiming she misunderstood the question. Similarly, she made the same assertion when she originally announced — and then retreated.

Harris seems torn between appealing to the activist left on this issue and realizing it would be a disastrous position in the general election. She had better get it right going forward.

More than any other candidate, the freshman California Senator lights up a room — she showed a commanding presence that previously only was there when playing her familiar role as a former prosecutor. She was sharp substantively, alternately displaying a focused intensity and an appealing charm.

ADVERTISEMENT

In deftly challenging Biden for noting he'd worked with politicians he disagreed with — like segregationist senators — to get things done, she cited her personal experiences as a young African-American girl without demagoguing. (One matter she may not continue to emphasize is her criticism of then-Senator Biden's opposition to using school busing for racial integration. It is an issue that largely has disappeared from the political agenda, but she made effective use of it on stage Thursday night.)

Harris’s direct and unrelenting challenge of Biden seemed to unnerve the former Vice President — who had held his own for the first part of the debate — and he faltered in the closing segments.

Biden can recover, as he still decisively beats President TrumpDonald John TrumpCensus Bureau intends to wrap up count on Oct. 5 despite judge's order Top House Republican calls for probe of source of NYT Trump tax documents New Yorkers report receiving ballots with wrong name, voter addresses MORE in polls, leads all Democrats, and enjoys significant political support. But a few more gaffes or lackluster performances will heighten a sense that the 76-year-old former senator, who has been in politics for almost a half century, is not right for the times in an election about change.

This week likely will accelerate Massachusetts Sen. Warren's ascension at the expense of fellow left-winger, Vermont Sen. Sanders. No one is more versed and bold on the issues; she is not turning away from potentially lethal positions like a totally government-run single payer health care system.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Buttigieg, also in the leading tier of candidates behind the front-runners, demonstrated his policy chops and a personal comfort. He wisely did not duck responsibility for the recent killing in his city of a black man by a white police officer. How that simmering issue plays out, and his handling of it, will determine where he can continue to build on the extraordinary buzz his candidacy has created.

ADVERTISEMENT

Colorado Senator Bennet and former San Antonio Mayor and Obama Cabinet member Castro impressed enough to give them another shot at getting out of the political basement. And New Jersey Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker says he will ask Amy Coney Barrett if she will recuse herself from presidential election-related cases Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for SCOTUS confirmation hearings before election The movement to reform animal agriculture has reached a tipping point MORE held his own.

Of the others, the biggest disappointment was O'Rourke, the former Texas Congressman who excited Democrats with his close challenge last year of Republican Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSupreme Court fight should drive Democrats and help Biden Fears grow of chaotic election Senate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election MORE. Unlike Buttigieg, O'Rourke simply hasn't been able to recreate that buzz, and his debate performance was no different.

Hopefully the next in a series of Democratic presidential debates will improve on the first ones. Major Democratic figures like Montana Governor Steve BullockSteve BullockOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court removes Pendley from role as public lands chief | Pendley court ruling could unravel Trump's public lands decisions | 1 in 4 adults cite climate change in decision not to have children Pendley court ruling could unravel Trump's public lands decisions Court removes Pendley from role as public lands chief MORE ideally would be included in future debates at the expense of fringe figures like Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson discusses speaking at People's Party Convention Fewer people watched opening night of Democratic convention compared to 2016 Marianne Williamson: Democratic convention 'like binge watching a Marriott commercial' MORE, an author of self-help books who said her first act as President would be to call the President of New Zealand.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the spelling of Cory Booker's first name.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for the Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.