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Zurawik: Biden holds his own, Harris struggles, Booker, Gillibrand, Gabbard come on strong in Democratic debate

Zurawik: Biden holds his own, Harris struggles, Booker, Gillibrand, Gabbard come on strong in Democratic debate
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, left, points at former Vice President Joe Biden during Night 2 of the Democratic primary debate at the Fox Theatre in Detroit on Wednesday. (Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images)

Former Vice President Joe Biden was uneven at times Wednesday night in the CNN Democratic debate, but unlike his previous outing, he definitely showed up and mainly held his own against what must have felt at times like a circular firing squad.

His performance was not equal in energy, passion or policy with Elizabeth Warren’s or even Bernie Sanders’ on Tuesday night. But he was up against stiffer competition from Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and he seemed to understand that he was going to have to go toe-to-toe with them if he wanted the nomination. Those in the party who think he is the only candidate who can beat President Donald Trump had to be feeling slightly better as the Detroit debate came to an end.

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As for Harris, she was off the high level of her knockout performance in the MSNBC debate where she tore into Biden for his Senate record on busing in the 1970s and left him looking bloodied and bewildered by the end of that encounter. Not only didn’t she land many punches on Biden, but she she also some tough hits from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard over her handling as California attorney general of cases she prosecuted. Gabbard’s attacks clearly knocked Harris off balance, and she never fully recovered.

Video courtesy of CNN

By surviving what seemed like one attack after another the first 90 minutes, Biden will likely be judged a winner of the debate by some. But the best performances were those of Gabbard, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who was fighting for her life as a presidential candidate, and Booker, who had an energy and almost joy at times unmatched by any of his opponents. Booker definitely stood out.

The former mayor of Newark, N.J., successfully confronted Biden on criminal justice and some of the “zero tolerance” policies he said Biden was involved in during his Senate career. Booker said that as mayor and then a senator he had to try to undo some of the damage Biden did to his community with such policies.

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Video courtesy of CNN

Gillibrand drilled Biden with a quote from an op-edit piece she said he wrote about women who worked outside the home.

“And I want to address Vice President Biden directly," she said. “When the Senate was debating middle-class affordability for child care, he wrote an op-ed. He voted against it, the only vote, but what he wrote in an op-ed was that he believed that women working outside the home would, quote, ‘create the deterioration of family.’ He also said that women who were working outside the home were, quote, ‘avoiding responsibility.' ”

She asked him pointedly what he meant by those words. When he ducked the question, she called him out on his dodge twice — until one of the moderators, Dana Bash, moved the conversation along.

If all that sounds like a lot of action and verbal combat compared with Tuesday night’s debate, it was. And that’s not surprising given the deeper level of talent onstage and the knowledge by some of them, like Gillibrand, that it was now or never in terms of getting enough money and high enough polling numbers to stay in the race until the next round of debates.

The moderators — Bash, Jake Tapper and Don Lemon — again kept a mostly tight rein on the candidates in terms of time limits and talking over one another. While the moderators and CNN came under some criticism for the structure and handling of the debates in reviews of Night 1, I have no serious complaints of either Night 1 or 2.

The NFL-like hyped-up opening graphics and candidate introductions were not a major distraction for me. And if you want a mass TV audience, you have to speak to some extent in the rhythms and conventions of television that audience members have come to expect when sitting down in front of the screen. Don’t open on two guys in cardigans sitting in wingback chairs in front of a fireplace smoking pipes and putting down their books to welcome viewers, and expect 10 million viewers to stay tuned in today’s media world.

The questions were serious and focused enough once the debate started. And as much emphasis as there was on getting everyone into the conversation, the moderators knew enough to give candidates some space when they were intensely engaged as Gillibrand was when she pushed Biden on that troubling op-ed statement about “jeopardizing the family.” And the person being challenged was always given a chance to respond.

Video courtesy of CNN

I am a fan of TV debates. And nothing I saw the past two nights changed that. I was glad to see some of the fringe candidates get more time.

I thought the time given to former Maryland Rep. John Delaney on Tuesday helped sharpen the fault lines in the party between moderates like him and the progressives like Warren and Sanders. And Warren ultimately was able to brilliantly use Delaney as foil — making herself look like a stronger candidate.

Wednesday’s debate again exposed some of the heavy baggage Biden brings with him, but it also gave Democrats a better sense of how he might fare in a one-on-one confrontation with Trump. The jury is still far from out on whether he’s the guy. But at least Democrats have seen he can still punch back.

Video courtesy of CNN

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