Biden holds the center, but does little to pick up ground

Analysis: The Democratic front-runner weathered attacks from his more progressive rivals, but two nights of debates did little to shift the outlines of the race.
Biden's performance wasn’t flawless — but he sounded much more like the candidate of 2012 than he had in his first primary season faceoff in Miami a month ago.
Biden's performance wasn’t flawless — but he sounded much more like the candidate of 2012 than he had in his first primary season faceoff in Miami a month ago.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

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By Shannon Pettypiece

As he took the stage, Joe Biden had an appeal for Kamala Harris: “Go easy on me, kid,” he told her. But it turns out, Harris was the least of his problems Wednesday night in Detroit.

The former vice president took blow after blow from fellow Democrats who argued his policies didn’t go far enough on the environment, immigration, and health care, and put him on the defense over his record on criminal justice and women’s issues.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., accused him of “dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor” and having "destroyed communities like mine" with his crime bill. Former Obama administration official Julián Castro said he hadn’t learned the lessons of the past on immigration. Others took aim at his plans on health care and climate change, saying they didn't go nearly far enough.

But despite the attempts to move him further to the left, Biden refused to budge, holding his ground in the center lane.

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For voters uneasy about government-run health insurance or radical moves to eliminate fossil fuels, Biden provided a safe-seeming alternative. His performance wasn’t flawless — cutting himself off at times, and calling a 54-year-old senator a kid — but he sounded much more like the Biden of 2012 than he had in his first primary season faceoff in Miami a month ago.

“I think Biden answered the question about whether he is fit for the job,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “Being the front-runner you don’t have to win you just have to maintain."

To Biden supporters, that will be reassuring. But after more than five hours of debates over two nights with twenty candidates, it’s unclear if Biden or any candidate will be able to pick up considerable ground.

"No one had a bad enough of a night they are going to be abandoned, and no one had a good enough night they will be flocked to, it was like it didn’t happen," said Philippe Reines, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton. "It’s like Game of Thrones, eight seasons and it ends right back where we started."

Now, the candidates will enter a six-week stretch before the next debate, which many are unlikely to meet the fundraising and polling threshold to qualify for. For the bottom tier of candidates, their inability to have a breakout moment during the debates will mean they may only have a few months left before their campaigns start running out of cash.

But the question remains where their supporters will fall as the field narrows without any candidate doing much to break away from the rest of the pack. There also remains the question of where the majority of black voters — a key Democratic primary demographic — will land. Biden has done well with that group, but Booker had a strong performance that could help him gain ground.

“I think Senator Booker could pick up support after tonight,” said Seawright. “He gave people a reason to look and think twice about him as a candidate.”

The debates also did little to change the game for President Donald Trump. The showdowns have highlighted the progressive wing of the party, spotlighting positions that could turn off some working-class voters — a development Republicans have been counting on.

But Biden and several other candidates, like Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., have mostly been able to resist that pull and continue to offer voters a set of more moderate options.

Biden remains the biggest threat to the president, said Republican strategist John Brabender, since he can appeal to the working-class Democratic voters Trump was able to win in 2016. But the demographics of the general election will shift much younger in 2020, he said — and Biden, 76, continues to make moves that remind voters of his age.

“I don’t look at this and say, I hope it isn’t this person,” said Brabender of the Democratic field. “We have seen weakness and strengths in all of them, but there is no one I see where I say, that is who I would really fear.”