Politics & Government

Winners and losers in the 2nd CNN Democratic presidential primary debate

Who won, who flopped and who had a breakout performance during Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential primary debate?

The State asked two political scientists, a South Carolina-based political consultant and a former chairwoman of the S.C. Democratic Party for their assessment of Wednesday’s Democratic presidential primary debate.

Tuesday saw the top two progressives in the Democratic field face off against their moderate opponents on health care, immigration and taxes.

Wednesday night, the second in the two-night round of debates, featured a rematch between former Vice President Joe Biden and California US. Sen. Kamala Harris, who clashed over race issues last month in the first round of debates.

Other candidates on stage Wednesday included: U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey; U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado; former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; businessman Andrew Yang; and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

Here’s what the College of Charleston’s Gibbs Knotts, Columbia political consultant Carey Crantford, former S.C. Democratic Party chairwoman Carol Fowler, and former longtime Winthrop University political scientist Karen Kedrowski, who now leads the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, had to say about the debate.

Listen to our daily briefing:

Who won

Crantford: “The pre debate posturing promised a spirited event pitting ... Biden against all comers. Throughout the debate most candidates on the stage tried to mix it up but, in the end, there was no knockout or significant change in the overall position of the pack.”

Fowler: “Several of the candidates had good nights, and there really wasn’t a clear winner. But, if I have to choose one it was Senator Harris. For whatever reason she was the other candidates’ target from the beginning, but she never faltered or backed down. There was no question that she could stand up to Donald Trump, which polling shows is what Democratic primary voters want.”

Kedrowski: “Senator Cory Booker. He was well prepared and knew his opponents’ records as well as his own. He made complex connections and did so clearly. Moreover, he was nimble and able to use one-liners to decimate his opponents’ arguments with pithy and funny phrases.”

Knotts: “Cory Booker won tonight. He had some great lines and went after the front-runner, and the leading candidate here in South Carolina, Joe Biden. He called out Biden for invoking President Obama ‘more than anybody in this campaign’ and said that ‘you can’t do it when it’s convenient and dodge it when it’s not.’ He also had a good response when Biden attacked his criminal justice record while Booker was mayor of Newark. He looked at Biden and said that ‘You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and don’t know the flavor.’ Booker was focused, prepared, and helped his candidacy in tonight’s debate.

Best line, moment

Crantford: “There were two pretty good unanticipated, but clearly scripted, lines in the debate. ... During the exchange between Sen. Booker and ... Biden over their differences regarding their records on criminal justice, Sen. Booker used some street slang to suggest that ... Biden did not know what he was taking about. The phrase ‘dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor’ was funny but seemed a little juvenile for a presidential candidate.

“Sen. Gillibrand delivered a good line when she was asked about her support for the ‘Green New Deal’ and what she would do to implement it. Her re[ply was, ‘First, I will Clorox the Oval Office.’”

Fowler: “The best line of the night was when Cory Booker said, ‘You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor,’” during an exchange with Biden over criminal justice records. “Second place goes to Senator Gillibrand for her promise to ‘Clorox the Oval Office’ when she moves in.”

Kedrowski: “Two nominees here. The first is Booker for two lines, both to Vice President Biden: ‘You can’t have it both ways’ when Biden refused to disclose what advice he gave President Obama about deportations, and ‘You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor’ in a response about crime.

“Mr. Andrew Yang also had a great line in his opening statement” ‘What’s the opposite of Donald Trump? An Asian man who likes Math.’”

Knotts: “Cory Booker had some good lines, but I liked when Kirsten Gillibrand said: ‘The first thing that I’m going to do when I’m president is I’m going to Clorox the Oval Office.’ This was a good line because it was funny and because Trump is exceedingly unpopular with Democratic Primary voters.”

Worst line, moment

Crantford: “Biden mounted an adequate defense of his record and tried to counter punch but looked uncomfortable, stumbled often and appeared uncertain in his role as defender or attacker – behaviors that will make him less of an effective challenger to Trump.

Sen. Harris certainly was looking for an opportunity to move up — but could not deliver. She also looked uncomfortable throughout the debate, appeared to slouch and did not drive home the key aspects of her message.

Both .. Biden and Sen. Harris found their footing later but by then, the opportunity to change minds had passed.”

Fowler: “Vice President Biden looked stronger tonight than in the first debate, but he had two bad moments. The first was when he couldn’t make himself answer a question about whether he had pushed back against Obama’s immigration policies. The second was when he seemed to say that he was obviously okay on issues of race and the crime bill because Obama vetted him and selected him to be Vice President.”

Kedrowski: “Joe Biden had several malapropisms, like referring to ‘eight more years of Trump’, which is, of course, impossible under the Constitution, and referring to Senator Booker as ‘the President.’ (Did he really confuse two Black men, Cory Booker and Barack Obama? That’s cringe-worthy.)

“Nonetheless, the worst moment goes to Senator Bennett in his entire opening statement. He was wooden and expressionless and seemed to be completely terrified. He didn’t show any passion until he spoke about today’s segregated schools.”

Knotts: “Joe Biden performed better than in the first debate but he stumbled at times and took incoming from several candidates. He had the worst line of the night when he said, ‘Anybody who crosses the stage with a Ph.D. should get a green card for seven years. We should keep them here.’ This line sounded more like something you would hear on a GOP debate stage and showed a willingness to assign a higher value to certain types of immigrants. This approach might help him in the general election, but it was not a good line for the primary.”

Who had a breakout moment?

Crantford: “Jay Inslee came the closest to having a break out moment. He was measured, precise and had a strong delivery. He spoke clearly about his concerns and accomplishments. ... Rep. Gabbard threw an effective punch at Sen. Harris over criminal justice issues and marijuana. Sen. Gillibrand showed a great deal of passion on civil rights issues and equal pay. Sen. Booker offered an effective challenge to ... Biden on criminal justice legislation. Sec. Castro had good moments again on the issue of immigration. Gov. Bennet did an effective job challenging Sen. Harris about her views on healthcare. The combination of marginal performances by ... Biden and Sen. Harris gave a majority of the other competitors some standout opportunities.”

Fowler: “Tonight saw a breakout by Senator Cory Booker, who is no doubt better known and taken more seriously after his performance. He was impressive (and clever) in several of his answers, and remained civil and pleasant even while getting tough on some of his opponents as well as on President Trump. He is likely to benefit from this debate over the next several days in both grassroots support and contributions.”

Kedrowski: “Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who called out Senator Kamala Harris’s record as a prosecutor in California. Harris’s response did not address Gabbard’s central point and sounded defensive. In many other instances, Harris was able to defend herself more effectively, usually by saying something like, ‘You’re wrong.’ In this instance, Harris was evasive, which indicates that Gabbard’s criticism was valid.”

Knotts: “Jay Inslee had a breakout moment. As expected, he was strong on the environment and a number of candidates expressed support for his approach to climate change. Inslee also showed an ability to attack Donald Trump, even calling the president a ‘white nationalist.’”

Follow more of our reporting on First in the South

See all 10 stories
Related stories from The State in Columbia SC

Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.