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Opinion Buttigieg and Harris were Thursday’s clear winners

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) speaks during an interview after the second round of the first Democratic presidential debate on Thursday in Miami. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Thursday’s Democratic debate was superior in every respect to Wednesday’s. It seems there is an advantage to being on the panel on the second evening: a significant opportunity to scout out the journalists asking questions, to survey the audience and to gauge the look and feel of the venue.

But even if the second part’s actors hadn’t had those built-in edges, they all benefited from an almost palpable uptick in intelligence and sincere passion, led by the two clear winners: Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Both displayed an almost effortless eloquence and command of rhetorical devices. They did not need gimmicks and appeared completely unrehearsed. They connected.

Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are — to be blunt — too old. Their ideas are old; their personas are old; their talking points are old. Biden might be unwilling to “pass the torch,” as Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) challenged him to do. But it slipped out of his hand when Harris delivered an emotionally devastating blow on his past record and recent comments on race — not just for Democratic primary voters but also for all Americans who have been on the side of civil rights from before Biden entered the Senate in 1973. Do people still like Biden? Of course. But they are asking themselves (many already were), “What don’t we remember about this guy?” He’s slipping, badly.

Sanders is out in far-left field, and as this primary is not a binary choice, he’s struggling. He was the only candidate over two nights who was hurt by having too much time. Extra-strength Bernie is too much Bernie, especially when Buttigieg — the war veteran and the tribune of generational change — is sharing the stage.

Eloquence still counts in politics. The temperament displayed by the young mayor was perhaps honed in Afghanistan, but he is astonishingly unflappable, direct and confident for a rookie on a national stage with 15 million or so people watching. His only error was in significantly distorting what Republicans or conservatives more broadly believe about God and the role of faith in politics.

Buttigieg is too smart not to know that he presented a caricature of center-right people of faith in the public square, and one that will be hard to put away should he improbably run the table. His was a high-risk pitch to the religious left, a not-insignificant slice of the electorate long ignored by the Democratic Party, but he might have overshot the mark. If so, it was his only mistake, even when he walked on to the stage burdened by a shooting in South Bend.

The race could, to the benefit of everyone, quickly narrow to five: Biden, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). There is simply no way for someone like Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) or former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper to change the fact that most people wouldn’t know who they were if seated next to them on an airplane. There’s no way for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to interrupt her way to significance. Swalwell and Andrew Yang, thanks for playing. Marianne Williamson, go back to books.

A debate among the five serious candidates about serious issues would be welcome. Many debates of five, in fact. But the Democratic National Committee will lack the nerve to cut fast and deep, even though delay gives President Trump more time to raise money and define the field — if not the individuals — and for the media to obsess over small things when it’s really already down to the old warhorses vs. the new faces.

Historian Jon Meacham commented on “Meet the Press” this month that Democrats have won the presidency when they hitched their fortunes to candidates from the next generation: John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. You look back on the past two nights and ask: Who could be the fourth name in that sequence? Who would, in retrospect, be as inevitable a nominee as Obama was from the moment he gave the keynote at the Democratic National Convention in the Fleet Center in Boston in 2004? The safer bet would be Harris, who would be the first female African American president, but the truly big throw of the dice would be Buttigieg. Are Democrats in a mood to gamble?


The Democratic presidential candidates ended one debate on Wednesday: whether Spanish should be an official language. (Video: The Washington Post)

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