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Here are 5 takeaways from the 2nd Democratic debates

From left, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Sen. Kirsten

From left, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are introduced before the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN on Wednesday in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Credit: AP/Carlos Osorio

The format this week in Detroit for the second round of official Democratic presidential debates was the same as the first in June in Miami: 20 candidates over two nights.

But Tuesday and Wednesday’s faceoffs yielded livelier, more policy-centric discussions.

Former Vice President Joe Biden appeared better prepared for the onslaught of criticism that comes with being the front-runner.

With the performances’ impact on polling and fundraising to be determined in coming days, here are five takeaways from the latest debates:

Left vs. left-of-center

A central theme of the primary has been how far left the Democratic Party can lurch without handing re-election to GOP President Donald Trump.

Leading progressive candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts shared the stage Tuesday, but made no moves to display daylight between them. They were too preoccupied warding off shots from the lesser-known moderates in the race.

“I don’t think they ever wanted to turn on each other, they have many common goals,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist with the progressive wing of the party. “To me, they seemed to be piling on. They got a lot of incoming, but they were able to tag-team.”

Health care debate

How to implement Medicare for All, what role private insurance will play, how high the cost could climb and what middle-class Americans will pay were questions that led both nights.

Biden at the start of Night Two accused Sen. Kamala Harris of California of “double talk” in her Medicare for All plan and cited its projected $30 trillion price tag over 10 years. Harris in response said Biden’s proposal to build on Obamacare would leave 10 million people without insurance.

One night earlier,  former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland got more airtime than expected for attacking Sanders and Warren on their proposals to do away with private insurance. Asked about Delaney’s criticism that Medicare for All is “political suicide,” Sanders replied succinctly: “You’re wrong.”

Criminal justice

Protesters on Wednesday targeted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio with chants of “Fire Pantaleo” at the debate venue, keeping the national spotlight trained on de Blasio’s rebuffing of activists’ calls to oust NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was seen on tape five years ago in Staten Island with his arm around Eric Garner’s neck as the man took his final gasps of breath.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro at the debate said they would fire Pantaleo, if they were in the mayor's shoes.

De Blasio said Pantaleo deserves due process.

Meanwhile, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii launched an attack on Harris, a former California attorney general, accusing her of keeping people locked up beyond their sentences “as cheap labor” for the state, among other offenses.

Harris said she was “proud of” her record and cited reform efforts.

Obama’s legacy

Candidates attacked the record of former President Barack Obama, whose political legacy is intertwined with Biden’s.

Castro, who was housing secretary under Obama, challenged Biden on the mass deportations during the presidency.

“I never heard him talk about any of this when he was secretary,” Biden said of Castro.

“It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past, and one of us has not,” Castro retorted.

Former Rep. Steve Israel, who now heads the Cornell University Institute of Politics and Global Affairs, called Democratic targeting of Obama’s legacy “self-defeating."

“This election’s going to be a referendum on President Trump, and Democrats are making it a referendum on President Obama,” said Israel, a Democrat, of Oyster Bay. 

Booker breakthrough

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey trails the top candidates in the polls and in fundraising, but delivered what experts said was a standout performance.

When Biden pressed Booker on stop-and-frisks, Booker responded with a zinger: “There’s a saying in my community: You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid, when you don’t even know the flavor.”

This debate may be a turning point for the Booker campaign, said Ashley Koning, assistant research professor at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.

“We know that he has the donors, we know that he has the popularity ratings, he just really hasn’t broken into that top tier,” Koning said. “He’s always had this very charismatic, informed way of communicating his ideas, and I think that really came across on the debate stage.”

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