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Harris stops playing it safe, and 5 other takeaways from a raucous debate

Sen. Kamala Harris clobbered Joe Biden in Thursday’s debate, leaving the Democratic frontrunner weaker than when he arrived. | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

You know it’s a bad night for a Democrat in the 21st century when he’s on stage explaining what parts of school busing, exactly, he opposed several decades ago.

But there was Joe Biden, telling Kamala Harris that what he opposed was “busing ordered by the Department of Education.”

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Biden had entered Thursday’s presidential debate prepared to avoid conflict. Instead, he got clobbered by Harris, a lower-polling contender.

So let’s call it: Biden is a damaged frontrunner, and he left his first primary debate of the year weaker than when he arrived.

Here are six takeaways from the second round of the first debates of the 2020 Democratic primary:

Harris is for real

One of the biggest questions about Harris heading into her first presidential debate was whether she’s too cautious. After two hours, no one is asking that anymore.

In crisp answers that cut to the core of issues, Harris’ goal was to allow viewers to envision her on the debate stage with Donald Trump. She managed to do more than that, taking a shot at Biden on the topic of race as she tries to chip away at his support among black voters.

Harris started off the night assailing Trump and the GOP over their tax cut for the rich. She also threw herself into a squabble between other candidates: “America does not want a food fight. They want to know how we put food on their table.”

But it was her direct questioning of Biden that stole the night, vaulting her name into the most-searched term on Google and giving her the clear victory. She came into the debate with a plan to hit the frontrunner over race and she executed it flawlessly, leaving Biden looking stunned.

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Turning to the politician decades her senior — and whose allies have suggested should pick her as his running-mate — Harris allowed that she doesn’t think he’s a racist. But his comments about his amiable dealings with segregationist senators were “hurtful.”

Then she turned to school busing.

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day,” she said. “And that little girl was me.”

By the end, Biden stopped himself, acknowledging that “anyway, my time is up.”

Later, on MSNBC, Harris twisted the knife, turning again to the “dark and dangerous” time when segregationists roamed the Senate. “We have to speak the truth in this country,” she said, adding “the consequences are painful and emotional.

“I would like to hear him acknowledge what was wrong about a perspective on busing.”

(Some) old people are doing fine

Weeks of thinly-veiled references to “generational change” and warnings about going back to the “old ways” were starting to get tired.

Want to really make your rivals look out of date? Stand next to them. Viewers on Thursday saw the two Democratic frontrunners — Biden and Bernie Sanders (white, male and with a combined age of more than 150) flanked by a 54-year-old African-American female senator and the gay, 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind.

But it wasn’t Biden’s advanced age that did him in. It was a pointed attack on his record. The weaker critique was the crasser one.

Eric Swalwell (presidential candidate, 38, often interrupts conversations) drew groans when he told Biden it was time to “pass the torch to a new generation.”

After Biden was through swatting Swalwell away, Buttigieg offered to interject “as the youngest guy on this stage.” But Sanders proved the sprier candidate, muscling away the microphone.

“The issue,” Sanders said, “is not generational … The issue is who has the guts to take on Wall Street, to take on the fossil fuel industry, to take on the big money interests who have unbelievable influence over the economic and political life of this country.”

Sanders emerged from the debate unscathed, with no cracks in his progressive base.

He benefited from the outset from an extended conversation about health care, his signature issue. And John Hickenlooper’s socialism critique didn’t land.

The exchanges shed light on the best way for younger candidates to hit the age issue: Direct criticism of candidates for how old they are can backfire, while sharp examinations of the decades-long records of those candidates are fair game.

Mayor Pete owns up, but highlights his inexperience

While Pete Buttigieg avoided the kind of lashing that another young candidate, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, experienced on Wednesday night, he also lacked a breakout moment.

Wearing a 5 o’clock shadow, perhaps to shade his considerable youth, Buttigieg at turns showed why he’s earned his way into the middle tier of the field, offering a critique of Republicans that’s designed to appeal to religious voters and those outside the coasts.

He talked about he and his husband’s student loan debt, but even there he took a middle ground, arguing that making college free was tantamount to asking the working-class families to subsidize the children of billionaires.

Same for his “Medicare for all who want it” approach.

But if the next few weeks were going to be a big test for the young mayor, Buttigieg did little to dig himself out of the biggest political challenge of his life.

Buttigieg came into the debate hobbled by a shooting in his city of South Bend, Ind. Buttigieg decided to take a direct approach—indicating that the buck stopped with him.

It was a risky approach: “I couldn’t get it done,” he said, later adding, “It’s a mess.”

It allowed him to avoid looking defensive. Yet it may have confirmed the fears of skeptics who believe the small town leader simply isn’t ready to take on the biggest job in the world.

Trump returns to the conversation

Let’s face it. Wednesday’s debate looked like backup night in the rookie leagues compared to what we just saw Thursday.

Part of that was luck of the draw. Four of five top-polling candidates were on the Thursday stage. But the other part was that these competitors remembered what Democrats care about more than anything else: defeating President Donald Trump.

It turns out that, for all of his other struggles, this is one thing Biden is very good at.

Biden invoked Trump three times in his first response of the night. The president “thinks Wall Street built America,” he put America in a “horrible situation,” and gave handouts to the wealthy that Biden promised to undo. Harris quickly followed suit, then Sanders, who called Trump a “phony” and “a pathological liar and a racist.”

This is what Democratic voters live for. And for high-polling candidates, it is the safest bet to focus on him. Even lower-tier candidates have support bases that the frontrunners will be fighting over once those candidates start dropping out. The common denominator for all of them is Trump.

Obama is not off limits — at least according to Harris

Go to the tape for Harris’ direct confrontation with Biden. But stick around for the riskier, more subtle point of separation she drew with him.

Biden’s go-to play for weeks has been to invoke Barack Obama and his relationship with a former president beloved by Democrats. That was no different on Thursday night. On health care, he urged voters to finish “the work we started with Obamacare.” When Harris smacked him on segregation and busing, Biden reminded the audience that he “worked with a man … we dealt with the issues in a major, major way.”

Most Democrats see this from Biden, nod and move on. He was the vice president, and this is his card to play. But Harris suggested an avenue that is open to Democratic presidential candidates who believe the voters they are courting might harbor some frustration with eight years of Obama.

On immigration — and the large number of immigrants deported on Obama’s watch — Harris said people should not be deported if their only offense is living in the United States without documents.

The timing could not have been better, with immigration at the forefront of many Democrats’ minds.

“On this issue,” Harris said, “I disagreed with my president.”

The critique didn’t flop. And now any other Democrat who wants to make a similar case can plow ahead.

So many candidates, so little likely movement

Six months from now, you’ll be recalling those pivotal first debates of 2020, right? Yeah, not so much. Julian Castro got a bump on night one, but it would be surprising to see a seismic shift in the race coming out of these two nights.

Truth is, Biden is still the frontrunner, and there’s only so much room for a low-polling candidates to move up.

Andrew Yang fell flat. Marianne Williamson was confusing, and Kirsten Gillibrand did not produce a memorable moment. The one contender who did, Harris, was already polling in the top tier.

The end of the next fundraising quarter is just around the corner. The news cycle moves quickly, and with the exception of Harris — and arguable Castro — it’s hard to imagine any individual performance altering the race a week from now.

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