Ahead of Wednesday night’s debate, Democratic presidential nominee hopeful Joe Biden remained significantly ahead in public opinion polls, leading his closest competitor, Bernie Sanders, by a 15.6 point margin, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. And so it’s no surprise that Biden was the primary target of most of the other ten candidates last night.

Biden has led by a wide margin in polls since entering the race on April 25. But after a poor showing in the first Democratic debate in Miami in June, that margin shrunk—though he managed to bounce back before last night’s debate. The former vice president evened out last night’s bruising by giving his opponents a drubbing of their own.

Biden Shows a Fighting Spirit

On Wednesday night, Biden not only withstood a relentless assault by his opponents but also went on offense. He appeared more confident and forceful, though he faltered at times when attacked by fellow candidates on topics like immigration and criminal justice reform.

Biden was forced to defend some of the Obama-era policies while also coming under fire for his own record going back to the 1980s. 

Washington Governor Jay Inslee raised Biden’s initial support for the 2003 Iraq War. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand criticized Biden for his policies on childcare. And New Jersey Senator Cory Booker grilled the former vice president for his previous “tough-on-crime” stance and authorship of anti-crime bills that are now seen as having a disastrous impact on urban communities.

But unlike the Miami debate, the former vice president came better prepared and also engaged in attacks on other candidates—especially rising contender Senator Kamala Harris. Biden hit at Harris’s record as state attorney general, attempting to make one of her strengths into a liability. He also criticized Harris’s healthcare plan, terming it as too costly and questioning its 10-year implementation schedule. “Anytime somebody tells you you’re going to get something good in 10 years, you should wonder why it takes 10 years,” Biden quipped.

Biden will be tested when the number of candidates reduces in future debates, but at last night’s debate, the former VP was able to deflect attacks and hold his ground, which may be reflected in the next polls.

Booker, Castro, and Gillibrand Grab Spotlight

While Wednesday night’s debate was a mixed bag for top-tier candidates Biden and Harris, several second-tier candidates stood out.

Cory Booker took numerous shots at Biden and his reference to voter suppression triggered applause from the audience. Booker accused Biden of selectively invoking Obama when it was “convenient” for him. He also called out the former VP’s support for punitive federal crime bills in the Senate. “Since the 1970s, every major crime bill—major and minor—has had his name on it,” Booker said.

Booker’s shining moment came when he was asked how the Democrats could win back Michigan, a state that voted Republican for the first time since 1988.

“Everybody from Republicans to Russians were targeting the suppression of African-American voters,” Booker said. “We need a campaign ready for what’s coming, an all-out assault,” he said.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro continues to struggle in the polls even after an impressive performance in the first debate. Castro shone again last night, speaking of his plans to invest in education and desegregate housing. However, one of the most memorable moments of the debate was Castro reiterating his support for the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump, terming it a “mistake” to not do so.

“Too many folks in the Senate and in the Congress have been spooked by 1998,” Castro said. “I believe that times are different. In fact, I think that folks are making a mistake by not pursuing impeachment.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand had two stand-out moments, the first of which was a scathing attack on Biden’s childcare views in 1981. Gillibrand hit at Biden for once arguing in an op-ed that women working outside the home would “create the deterioration of family.” In the same article, then-senator Biden had voted against expanding childcare tax credit.

Other Democrats have made childcare one of the fundamental parts of their campaign. For her part, Gillibrand is pledging to expand childcare tax credit, increasing the amount to $6,000 and make it fully refundable, so that even families who don’t owe taxes will be eligible for the money. During the debate, the New York senator also talked about the role she wants to play in tackling institutional racism in the United States—in a clear bid to reach out to the party’s growing progressive wing.

“I don’t believe that it’s the responsibility of Cory and Kamala to be the only voice that takes on these issues of institutional racism,” she said, adding she wants to address this issue by explaining white privilege to white women in the suburbs.

While the second-tier candidates—all still polling in single digits—might never come near double-digit support in polls, there’s a long way to go before the first voting in the Democratic primaries actually takes place. And there’s a big consolation prize at hand: these debates could be considered as auditions for who gets to be the running mate for the eventual Democratic nominee.

Rahima Sohail is a contributor to Globely News, writing on U.S. politics and the geopolitics of Asia. She was previously a sub-editor and producer at The Express Tribune, a Pakistani English-language daily. She spends most of her time reading and ranting about politics and football.

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