Biden versus Booker and Harris, and other matchups

Biden versus Booker and Harris, and other matchups

WASHINGTON – Joe Biden said he “wasn’t prepared.”

The former vice president frowned on the debate stage last month as Sen. Kamala Harris criticized his “hurtful” comments on working with segregationist Democratic senators and his opposition to federally mandated busing to integrate public schools while he was in Congress.

Harris described a nameless little girl who was helped by busing from her local school district in the Bay Area, closing with a now infamous line: “That little girl was me.” 

While Biden aggressively pushed back against the characterization, pundits and many viewers alike felt Harris came out on top in the exchange. The confrontation went on to dominate headlines and led to a bump in polls for Harris over the next several weeks.

Since then, Biden has promised: I’m done being polite.

He’s not alone. Several candidates have escalated their rhetoric against fellow 2020 Democrats ahead of Tuesday and Wednesday’s debate at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

The gloves are officially off. Here is what to watch for. 

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What’s at stake? 

This debate is crucial for many Democrats — especially lesser-known candidates (like Govs. Steve Bullock or Jay Inslee) or candidates who have seen steadily dipping poll numbers(looking at you, Beto O’Rourke) if they want to make it onto the next debate stage, or even keep their campaigns running until the Democratic caucuses and primaries begin in February. 

The September debate threshold requires candidates to hit 2% in four qualifying polls and tally at least 130,000 individual donors, according to the Democratic National Committee guidelines. So far, only seven candidates — O’Rourke, Biden, Harris, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — have meet the threshold.

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Biden vs. Harris and Booker

Biden will be sandwiched between the only two African American presidential candidates on the second night of the debate, both of whom have been critical of his record on civil rights. Both Harris and Booker are also vying for the critical black-voter bloc — one Biden continues to hold on to, according to recent polls. 

Throughout the debate, the three candidates will likely try to tout their records as best on criminal justice and civil rights. The debate takes place in Detroit where nearly 80% of the city is African American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Just last week, Biden introduced a criminal justice plan that would reverse portions of a 1994 crime bill that he helped write. Harris in the Senate introduced a plan to decriminalize marijuana, a plan at odds with her previous stance.

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But Booker last week slammed Biden as the “architect” of mass incarceration after Biden introduced his criminal justice plan, pointing particularly to that 1994 crime bill, which Biden helped write and critics have said targeted and impacted mostly communities of color.

“Cory knows that’s not true,” Biden shot back, telling reporters people should look at Booker’s record while mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

“(Booker’s) police department was stopping and frisking mostly African American men,” Biden continued. “If he wants to go back and talk about records, I’m happy to do that. But I’d rather talk about the future.”

Booker, who has continued to struggle in polling, on Friday said Biden’s criticisms were “ridiculous.”

“I will always speak truth to power,” the New Jersey Democrat said told MSNBC. “The response to having a substantive conversation about people’s records shouldn’t be to go onto the attack.”

In addition, Biden continued to signal he won’t be afraid to fight back if Harris decides to come after him again.

“I’m not going to be as polite this time, because this is the same person who asked me to come to California and nominate her in her convention,” he said while fundraising in Detroit last week. Biden in 2016 spoke on behalf of Harris for her Senate campaign at the California Democratic convention.

Warren and Sanders vs. the moderates

Two of the most progressive 2020 candidates will be on stage with many of the more moderate candidates.

Both Warren and Sanders have argued for a $15 federal minimum wage, making college free, and increasing taxes on the wealthy. In addition, the two New England Senators have called in some degree for canceling student loan debt.

However, candidates such as former Rep. John Delaney, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, have all touted their campaigns as alternatives to the far-left presidential hopefuls. Their contrasting beliefs with be in full display on the same stage with Sanders and Warren

Last week, Bullock signaled he might be itching for a confrontation, criticizing those plans that would cancel student loan debt. He noted one-third of the debt is owned by the wealthiest quarter of all Americans and that only 20% of Americans are carrying student debt at all.

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“They don’t need more big promises that look good in a tweet but fail to deliver real change,” Bullock wrote in an op-ed for CNN. Bullock, the only Democrat to win statewide in state President Donald Trump carried in 2016, didn’t qualify for the first debate and will be introducing himself to a wide national audience for the first time.

Hickenlooper as also repeatedly denounced “socialism” (Sanders is a self-described Democratic Socialist) and Klobuchar has touted her bipartisan work in the Senate as in contrast to Warren and Sanders’ policy proposals.

But Warren and Sanders are still routinely polling among the top candidates with voters. None of the more centrist Democrats sharing the stage with them have broken into the top five.

The candidates that need a moment

Several candidates have faced a variety of headwinds in their campaigns and will be looking for a breakout moment.

O’Rourke has been struggling. Once seen as a top contender, the former Texas congressman has slumped in polling and fallen behind in fundraising. During the last debate, some accused him of “hispandering” after speaking in Spanish within the first minutes of the debate.

Buttigieg, who raised the most money among 2020 Democrats last quarter, has seen his poll numbers somewhat plateau. He has also struggled to gain traction with black and Latino voters, groups he needs to have support him to have a chance to win the election.

Julián Castro, the Housing and Urban Development Secretary in the Obama Administration and the only Latino candidate, had a brief breakout moment during the first night of last month’s debate. Yet Castro, who was also once seen as a rising star in the Democratic party, has hardly broken past 1% in many polls.

Gillibrand, one of six women running for president, has also found herself struggling to make any headway in a crowded field. Despite routinely interjecting her policy ideas in the last debate, the New York Democrat has not seen support grow.

These are just several of the many Democrats on stage who will need to find a way to break through in order to qualify for the next debates. Both O’Rourke and Castro have at least one poll above 2% and have more than 130,000 donors. Gillibrand has yet to make 130,000 donors or poll at 2%.

O’Rourke is one of the only candidates who has talked about how he watched back his debate performance from last month. During an interview with Jemele Hill, he noted that he had “tunnel vision” and was just “focused on the question and your response and just what you feel” and not everything that was happening on stage.

He noted he is more comfortable in a town hall setting or talking to voters one on one, but added “the onus is on me to do a better job of conveying” his experience on stage and through the TV screen.

“How I get that across in that one minute answer on the debate stage, how I convey that in a national television interview, that’s on me,” he said. “I think something needs to come through that’s a lot more me in the way that I give those answers.”

“You just gotta be the channel for all those people you’ve ever listened to, met, talked to, whose hopes you are carrying.” 

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