If Thursday night in Miami proved anything, it was that the middle ground within the Democratic Party is sinking fast. Moderation is losing. It's grown old and unattractive, apparently, and as creaky as a farmhouse staircase.
When former vice president Joe Biden, 76, stepped onto the stage at the Adrienne Center for the Performing Arts, he was leading in the polls and in the money chase. He was the man to beat. But as night 2 of the Democrats' presidential debate wore on, the progressive candidates opposing him painted him as an out-of-touch relic, a centrist unable to keep up with the leftward leanings and pugilistic mindset of party activists.
Clearly, hard-lefter U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, the only black woman running for president, got the better of him. At least, she stood up and was counted. All of a sudden Biden's ability to sustain his lead in the race isn't as sure on Friday as it was on Wednesday.
In one powerful moment, Harris, a Berkeley graduate and former prosecutor in California, invoked race, challenging Biden to apologize for working with segregationist senators and for opposing aspects of school busing in the 1970s. She made it personal, telling Biden she benefited from busing as a young student.
Biden didn't apologize, but his counter-punches missed the mark.
Said an Associated Press wire report, "Throughout the debate, Biden had a mostly subdued presence and did little to draw bright distinctions between his policies and those of top-tier challengers like Harris and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
"His high points," concluded the story's author, "were his invocations of his alliance with President Barack Obama and his record on getting tough legislation on guns passed."
Vermont's 77-year-old U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are probably the most notable of the race's raging liberals. Sanders came out Thursday night shouting and subsequently annoying some of his most committed supporters. One of his Twitter followers told him to cut it out.
“Bernie, I respect you but STOP YA DAMN YELLING!” tweeted an activist at the handle @RadioDexter.
And, “I wish Bernie would stop yelling at me,” wrote a New York woman who called herself a sports fanatic and animal lover.
With more at stake for the frontrunners, the second Democratic debate far more fireworks than the more tepid event the night before.
Said FOX News, "By and large, the moderators went down a list of Democratic issues as defined by the left of the party, and the candidates largely pandered in their answers.
"Interestingly, when asked what issue they would bring before Congress, this group of mostly seasoned politicians ducked the issue for fear of alienating one constituency over another."
Also, it would also appear impeachment is a dead issue, because certainly it was of little interest to the presidential candidates. What IS of interest to all of them is giving free health care to undocumented immigrants. That's now a consensus issue among the candidates.
Most candidates on both nights vowed to decriminalize illegal immigration. Which led conservative pundits to conclude they cannot identify a single candidate among the Dems' ranks who can defeat Donald Trump.
Who were Thursday's winners and losers? These aren't my choices, but most media opinion writers agree with this list. It comes from Mark Penn, managing director of the Stagwell Group. He was chief strategist on Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Joe Biden. He successfully showed he could stand up under withering challenges and recite a list of his accomplishments. He was generally articulate, on point and unflappable. But his response to the attack by Kamala Harris has holes, saying his vote against federally ordered busing was not a vote against busing.
Kamala Harris. She went in with a mission of having a confrontation with Biden, who is holding 50 percent of the African-American community votes. She went after him on the issue of race, and her attack will be the most replayed moment of the debate, elevating her status and perhaps reclaiming some of an important constituency from Biden. She had the most aggressive style of all the debaters and that may help her if the voters are looking for someone they believe won’t wither under attacks by President Trump.
Pete Buttigieg. His answers were generally articulate and he was careful to take some moderate positions like questioning "Medicare-for-all." His answer on the police shooting in his city was obviously rehearsed and very tentative, but he got through it. Nevertheless, he remains a candidate with a growing hold on younger voters who can’t be counted out.
Bernie Sanders. He generally repeated his attack on corporate America over and over again and it sounded hollow. His performance on Thursday night is unlikely to stop the advance of Elizabeth Warren, who is splitting the party’s most progressive voters.
Kristen Gillibrand. She swung for the fences with an impassioned defense of women’s reproductive rights, but her attempt to go after women’s votes seemed inauthentic and forced. She likely did not advance her candidacy much in this debate.
The rest of the candidates generally were losers even as they gave some articulate and interesting answers. But they will likely remain far behind the frontrunners.
So, Biden holds onto his lead. Harris is moving up. Sanders is going down. Elizabeth Warren and Buttigieg are the ones to watch.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith