Debate takeaways: Biden slips, Harris soars, Dems tilt left

Michael Mathes
1 / 4

Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Kamala Harris had a breakout night on the debate stage in Miami, Florida

Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Kamala Harris had a breakout night on the debate stage in Miami, Florida (AFP Photo/SAUL LOEB)

Washington (AFP) - The first TV debates of the 2020 White House primaries have underlined Joe Biden's vulnerability to a younger generation in a Democratic Party that is leaning increasingly to the left.

The two-night event -- sometimes tense, often compelling -- that concluded Thursday in Miami introduced American voters to the top 20 Democrats aiming to challenge Republican incumbent Donald Trump next year.

Here are five takeaways from the opening debates:

- It's an open race -

The most experienced, best-known candidate in the campaign came under repeated assault Thursday, notably from Senator Kamala Harris on race.

Biden, 76, exited the stage appearing out of step with new luminaries in the party -- and with a more fragile hold on the top spot.

His sudden vulnerability means the race is now wide open, and his comfortable lead in national polling (32 percent support for Biden compared to 17 percent for nearest competitor Senator Bernie Sanders) might be a mirage.

He did little to set himself apart from other heavyweights at his side, and sometimes stumbled as he defended his lengthy legislative record, suggesting he was surprised by the intensity of the critiques.

- Women ascend -

Two nights of debates confirmed two rising stars, Harris of California and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

The progressive Warren dominated much of Wednesday night's showdown. She held her fire against Trump, instead choosing to make a disciplined case for her electability with the most comprehensive set of policy positions put forward for 2020.

Harris, who has struggled for a breakout moment in recent months of campaigning, earned the spotlight Thursday.

She offered concise policy specifics on immigration, taxes and health care, and her steely confrontation with Biden showed a candidate on her A game.

When rivals, mostly male, talked over one another for several heated seconds, Harris stepped forward as the adult in the room.

"America does not want to witness a food fight," she reminded her rivals. "They want to know how we're going to put food on their table."

- Generational divide -

A fierce generational tug-of-war is taking place within the Democratic Party -- whose three top 2020 candidates are all in their 70s -- and it played out on stage.

The younger candidates challenged their elders on everything from tackling climate change and immigration to reducing gun violence.

Congressman Eric Swalwell, 38, made the point most bluntly Thursday by calling on Biden to pass the torch to a new generation.

"I'm still holding onto that torch," Biden grinned.

Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, stood next to Biden on stage as he stressed the importance of turning to young leaders who are more adept at digital technology and have borne greater burdens on post-9/11 battlefields.

Senator Bernie Sanders, the oldest candidate at 77, pushed back, insisting that how Americans address issues like education and climate change "is not generational." Younger rivals argued otherwise.

- Race a delicate issue -

Democrats have warned that Trump is fueling racial divisions with his rhetoric. Harris and Senator Cory Booker, the two prominent candidates of color in the contest, have made clear that the issue can be broached in moving terms.

Harris won plaudits by boldly confronting Biden on race and identity.

Biden had been on the defensive over how he described working closely in the Senate with segregationists with whom he disagreed.

Harris, 54, said she did not believe Biden was racist, but called his comments "hurtful."

The former California attorney general went on to pin down Biden on his past opposition to 1970s busing programs that forced integration of segregated schools -- eloquently invoking her memory of being bused to school as a little girl.

- Democrats run left -

Democrats are united in their anger with Trump, but on policy they are fractured, and that leaves the president licking his lips at the chance to exploit their divisions -- and increasing leftward shift.

Despite pushback from centrists like Biden, the progressive positions championed by Sanders and Warren, including increasing government intervention in the economy, were on full display.

Among the proposals: eliminate private health insurance in favor of government-run care; decriminalize unauthorized immigration; and provide free education at public colleges, paid for through a Wall Street tax.

The policies may inspire the party's most liberal supporters, but they will invite endless attack lines from Trump.