Democratic presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris speaks during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on Thursday at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami.
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris speaks during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on Thursday at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. (Al Diaz / TNS)

Those who thought it was too early in the 2020 election cycle for anything important to happen in the Democrats’ TV debates this week thought wrong. So wrong.

If Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s winning performance Wednesday night wasn’t a game changer in the large field of more than 20 candidates, the dominance of Sen. Kamala Harris on Thursday on a stage with former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders surely was.

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There was one electric exchange Harris had with Biden on race that I thought did serious damage to the party’s front runner as she used her own personal history of being bused to school as a child to challenge his early work in the Senate with segregationists who opposed federally mandated busing. They argued that it should be left up to the states and local governments to decide, a way of keeping schools segregated in the South and beyond even after Brown v. Board of Education.

Biden had invited just such a takedown when he recently spoke with some respect and even fondness about two of the staunchest segregationists formerly in the Senate, James Eastland, of Mississippi, and Herman Talmadge, of Georgia.

“At least there was some civility,” he nostalgically told an audience at a New York fundraiser in talking about his early days working with such men. “We got things done.”

Harris opened her remarks by saying she did not think Biden was a racist, but then used her history to call him out for his words of support for such senators and the legislation they tried to pass.

“It’s personal … and it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing,” she said addressing Biden directly.

“And, you know, there was little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” Harris said. “And that little girl was me.”

Biden was all over the place in trying to argue that Harris was the beneficiary of a local decision, which is what he had supported all along. But she was having none of it, and from the applause in the hall, it sounded as if the audience agreed.

Biden, whose body language was so tentative throughout the two-hour event that moderators couldn’t tell at points whether he was raising his hand or not to seek recognition, never recovered from that clash.

Harris, meanwhile, stood tall, forcefully offering strong arguments on each question thrown her way.

As hard as the former prosecutor can press an intellectual argument or challenge an opponent, she also has one of the most telegenic and disarming smiles of any presidential candidate since John Kennedy. It seems to light up the screen.

On TV, which is after all a visual medium, it helps make for a winning persona.

Give MSNBC moderators Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd credit for knowing enough to hang back and let Harris have the time and space to take on Biden instead of trying to enforce a 30-second time limit on her answer.

You need to have rules in a TV debate when you have 10 candidates onstage, but you also need to feel the temperature of the debaters and the room and be willing to improvise when someone is delivering an especially sweet or soaring solo.

In a larger sense, despite the technical problems suffered Wednesday, NBC News deserves credit for creating the space for an engaging, spirited and somewhat unruly at times conversation of democracy among the candidates. I loved the all-day programming from Miami on MSNBC leading up to the debates Wednesday and Thursday and the feeling all week that NBC was bringing every resource it could to the table to put this election on the front burner of public consciousness.

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The format worked not just in showcasing the ideas and styles of the front runners, but also in exposing the audience to lesser known candidates.

I came away from Wednesday’s debate looking to find out more about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Thursday night, the candidate below the radar who caught my eye was California Rep. Eric Swalwell.

At first, I was annoyed by the way he and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand seemed to be constantly talking over other candidates in an effort to get airtime, even though I understood the need for each to do so.

But the big surprise for me was the way Swalwell, not Pete Buttigieg, became the voice of a younger generation during the debate. I loved the way Buttigieg had given voice to a non-baby-boomer vision of leadership for the nation in some of his stump speeches, and looked forward to what he would say Thursday. But in that regard, I was mainly disappointed.

Swalwell, on the other, took up the role when he said, “I was six years old when a presidential candidate came to the California Democratic Convention and said it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans. That candidate was then-Senator Joe Biden. Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation 32 years ago. He is still right today.”

It was a rough night in prime time for Biden Thursday. And while it is far too soon to know anything for certain, it feels like we might have seen the torch of leadership in the 2020 Democratic race seized from him on that TV stage in Miami.

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