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5 takeaways from the Democratic debates

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris at Thursday's Democratic primary debate. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Saul Loeb

The first official Democratic presidential debates last week marked a new phase of the primary, giving millions of voters a first look at the key matchups and issues.

On Thursday, while the spotlight at the start of the night was trained on front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden, it was stolen by Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who challenged him on race issues.

On Wednesday, lower-polling former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro seized the opportunity to introduce himself and his immigration plan, standing out alongside that night’s front-runner, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

The debates won’t remake the race, political analysts said, but with fundraising bumps for the breakout performances and fallout to contain for those who stumbled, the standings will shift.

Here are five takeaways from the two nights:

Biden vulnerable

Biden failed to shield himself against attacks that he must have seen coming, experts said.

Harris, by contrast, came prepared and assailed his past remarks on working with segregationists and his resistance to busing to integrate schools, experts said.

The vice president didn't effectively defend himself until Friday, when he gave a speech on his decadeslong fight for civil rights and when he had the stage to himself.

His campaign’s strategy to limit his news interviews and keep him away from town halls had preserved his front-runner status, but meant he hadn’t had as much practice taking questions, said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who managed Howard Dean’s presidential bid.

Robert Shrum, a Democratic adviser who worked with John Kerry, noted Biden’s reservoir of goodwill.

“I don’t know how much damage has been done because he’s got deep and wide African-American support,” Shrum said, despite Biden's remarks about working with segregationists and on busing.

Eyes on Harris

Harris’ criticism of Biden was measured in tone and personal in nature, commending him for seeking common ground but underscoring her vantage point as a woman of color, experts said.

She revealed that she was bused as a child in efforts to integrate California public schools.

Harris’ support among likely Democratic voters jumped from 8 percent before the debate to 17 percent after it, while Biden’s dropped from 42 percent to 32 percent, according to Morning Consult polling done for FiveThirtyEight, which asked the same group of respondents, before and after the faceoff, who they’d back in the primary.

And the senator in the 24 hours after the debate had her best fundraising day of the campaign, raising $2 million in online contributions from more than 60,000 donors, spokeswoman Lily Adams said.

“She’s going to have higher expectations the next debate,” said Shrum, a University of Southern California political science professor. “She’s going to be scrutinized.”

Divided on health care

Keeping the focus on health care helped Democrats take back the House in 2018, but health care’s role in the 2020 race is more tenuous, experts said.

The presidential candidates and the party risk alienating moderates if they reject private insurance, experts said.

Warren on Wednesday won with progressive activists when she raised her hand in support of abolishing privately run health insurance in favor of a government-run plan.

Harris raised her hand to indicate the same Thursday, but said later she misunderstood the question. She clarified to MSNBC on Friday that she embraces Medicare for all but wants private insurance to exist for supplemental coverage.

Additionally, all 10 Democrats debating Thursday raised their hands when asked if their universal health care plans would cover immigrants living in the country illegally.

President Donald Trump seized on the visual, tweeting, in part: “How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!”

Women to the fore

Harris, Warren and other women challenged the perception that Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are more electable, experts said.

“The women’s performances showed definitively how well they could take on Trump in a general election,” said Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications at Emily’s List.

“We saw Elizabeth Warren combine her understanding of the issues with her storytelling and ability to educate and convince voters,” said Reynolds, who worked on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s campaigns.

And Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota earned applause Wednesday when she hailed the collective advocacy of the women onstage.

“I just want to say there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” she said, responding to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s touting of his record on abortion rights.

Generation gap

“One of the freeze frames of the night was two white men in their 70s and a much younger African-American woman,” said Ian Russell, former deputy executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, referencing Biden, Sanders and Harris, who is 54. “The generational divide doesn’t have to be Biden and Bernie v. Buttigieg.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, at 37, the youngest of the major candidates; Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, 50, and Castro, 44, also earned good reviews.

A University of California Berkeley poll earlier this month found 88 percent of California’s Democratic voters believe “decades of political experience” would be an advantage for a candidate, but 83 percent said they thought being older than 70 would be a disadvantage.

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