Thursday’s Democratic debate lacked the sparks and conflicts that characterized the first two outings. It nonetheless produced three clear winners: former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
Biden won by turning in a relatively strong and steady performance. He acquitted himself well during the first series of exchanges over health-care policy, deftly tying himself to President Barack Obama’s signature health-care reform while pointing out the weaknesses in Sens. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)’s plans. He did not stumble and looked strong and in command during these exchanges. More moderate Democrats looking for a winner saw much to like.
His noticeable weakening as the debate wore on, however, prevents him from claiming a clear triumph. Biden’s answers became increasingly complex and convoluted, and he took a long break from the fray as the questioning turned to foreign policy. He was saved by the bell in a sense when protesters interrupted his response to the final question, giving him time to gather his thoughts. He then delivered a solid closing, recounting the tragedy of losing his first wife and daughter in a car crash and then his beloved son Beau to cancer and noting how finding purpose in public service gave him strength to carry on. Biden likely found few converts, but his backers found little reason to doubt their man.
Harris was charismatic. Alternately funny and serious, warm and strong, she came across as a real person with real experience and a passion for change. Her answers lacked some of the policy detail of her competitors, but she more than made up for that with her wit and some planned one-liners. Former Obama Cabinet secretary Julián Castro spoke about how Democratic presidential winners excited millions of voters to put together their victorious coalitions. His low-energy performance did not show he was the person to do that, but Harris’s suggested she could.
Whether she can turn a winning persona into a winning campaign remains to be seen. Democrats looking for passionate progressivism have found their champions, and Harris wisely is not trying to out-shout Sanders or Warren. Democrats looking for a steady, more centrist hand also have their person, and Biden thus far hasn’t given them reason to change. But the race is still young, and we know from experience that candidates drop rapidly in the face of attacks and under the pressure of the moment. If Harris can keep this up, she is positioned to pick up former supporters of any of the top three if they falter.
Klobuchar was the surprise of the night, finally showing some energy and life. Her opening statement carefully presented her case as the Midwestern working mom who can unite the country while advancing liberal policy goals. Cleverly blasting Sanders’s signature Medicare-for-all proposal by saying, “While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill,” was a masterstroke. Her closing statement was superb as she argued that only someone from the middle of the country could speak to the middle of the political spectrum.
She won’t gain much in the polls from her performance, but it nonetheless demonstrates how she could break out of the pack. Her standing in Iowa polls is slightly higher than her national standing, and her debate strategy was laser-targeted on the Iowa voter who isn’t a staunch progressive. Biden owns that lane right now, and if he stays strong, Klobuchar goes home early. But if he does falter, her demeanor and argument are tailor-made for one of Iowa’s patented late surges.
Harris and Klobuchar also performed well in the unspoken primary to become Biden’s running mate if he prevails. Biden surely would have to pick a woman to unite a party where nearly 60 percent of the voters are female. Picking Harris would be the obvious choice as she adds age, gender, ethnic and regional balance. Selecting Klobuchar, however, would be a modern equivalent of Bill Clinton’s selection of another young, Southern, New Democrat — then-Sen. Al Gore from Tennessee — as his vice president. That pick doubled down on Clinton’s core message: that he was a different type of Democrat whom blue-collar Reagan Democrats could feel comfortable supporting. A Biden-Klobuchar ticket would be focused on the Trump Democrat whose party switch broke the Blue Wall while also reassuring Romney-to-Clinton voters that Democratic radicals would be kept on a leash.
One should not read too much into Thursday night’s debate. We are still more than four months away from the Iowa caucuses, and anything can and probably will happen before then. But for now, Biden, Harris and Klobuchar come out looking a little bit stronger, and that can only help.