Last night’s round one of the debate was hard to predict. Would the natural rivals, Bernie and Warren on the one hand and Buttigieg and Beto on the other, go toe-to-toe? (Nope.) Would the moderates, like John Delaney and Tim Ryan, pile on the progressives? (Yep.) Would Marianne Williamson cast a spell stealing the souls of everyone watching and encasing them in a magic crystal, to be freed only after America has safely elected her president? (Yes indeed.)
Tonight’s round two, at 8 p.m. ET on CNN, is more straightforward. The plan for nearly everyone onstage: Get Biden. Hit him high, hit him low, but hit him hard.
Bill de Blasio
Harris is going to take her best shot at Biden, knowing that expectations are high after her breakout performance in the first debate. She pulled some black voters away from Grandpa Joe — temporarily — with the exchange about busing last month. She’s coming after him again, this time probably for his criminal justice bill, to try to further persuade those voters that he’s no friend to black Americans.
Cory Booker’s coming for him too. Spartacus is a desperate man, a marginal candidate to date who somehow needs to elbow past Biden *and* Harris to get black voters’ attention. He’s going to come at Biden for his record on race even more insistently tonight than she will in hopes of finally making his mark. Odds are good, in fact, that the main takeaway from viewers four hours from now will be annoyance that Booker kept interrupting in order to muscle in on the big Biden/Harris rematch.
Gillibrand? Yep, attacking Biden is probably also her best bet. She’s at risk of not qualifying for the third debate; if she doesn’t do something to jumpstart her campaign tonight, she might not have another chance. Landing a roundhouse to the despised centrist Biden’s chin is likely the easiest way to ingratiate herself to progressives.
How about Julian Castro? He had a strong debate last month, winning an exchange on immigration with Beto O’Rourke, but got nothing from it in the polls. He’s in Gillibrand’s boat, needing some immediate buzz. Nothing would do that as efficiently as proving that he’s a more effective left-wing attack dog against Biden than the more celebrated Harris or Booker are.
As for Grandpa Joe himself, he knows it’s coming. He and his campaign have spent the past two weeks all but daring Booker and Harris to come at him. He’s hit Booker hard for the Newark PD’s poor civil-rights record and scoffed at Harris’s fantasyland proposals for how to pay for Medicare for All. Harris got away unscathed in the first debate; he needs to make sure that doesn’t happen tonight. And he needs to look and sound nimble in sparring: A recurring criticism of his stumbling defense from Harris’s busing attack in the first debate was that he looked his age, seemingly caught off-guard. There’ll be no whiny excuses tonight if he stumbles again that Harris desecrated his son’s memory by criticizing him or whatever. Biden needs to prove he’s up to the task. If not, Trump might be taunting him as “low energy” before the debate’s even over.
The dark horse in tonight’s line-up, by the way, is Tulsi Gabbard, whom regular readers know has been landing hard jabs at Kamala Harris. You might think Harris and Gabbard would be more likely to be allies against Biden than Biden and Gabbard would be likely to be allies against Harris. Harris and Gabbard are each a bit further left than Joe, each women of color, each much younger than the former VP, each relatively new to Congress. But for whatever reason, Gabbard has singled her out, including and especially for the bad faith she showed in questioning Biden’s racial bona fides in the first debate. Gabbard might be an attack dog for Biden onstage tonight. And if she is, the theories of why she’s allied herself with him will be flying tomorrow.
CNN is livestreaming the debate on its website (no cable login required) in case you’re away from a television set. The commentariat is preparing for another lackluster Biden performancer, which would throw some new uncertainty into the race tomorrow, but … what if he has a great debate? He’s already back up to a big lead in polling. He could put a chokehold on the race tonight if he embarrasses Harris and Booker. In lieu of an exit question, read this column by Steve Chapman challenging the hypocritical wokeness being applied retroactively to Biden’s support for the Clinton-era crime bill. If crime were as bad now as it was then, argues Chapman, Harris and Booker both would have supported the legislation — especially Harris, a former AG.
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