[Here’s the full transcript of the second night of the Democratic debate]
It was a two-hour debate with 10 candidates. But there was only one defining moment: Senator Kamala Harris of California invoking her personal history about being bused to school as she directly challenged Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president, over his record on race and the use of busing to integrate schools.
“I do not believe you are a racist,” Ms. Harris began the emotional exchange with Mr. Biden on Thursday night.
It only intensified from there.
Here are the 6 standout moments from the second Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC:
Biden’s opponents have been swinging at him for weeks. On Thursday, some landed blows.
Mr. Biden, the early leader in the polls, has been the target of oblique swipes from opponents throughout his two-month presidential campaign. But midway through the debate, Ms. Harris put him on the defensive as she tore into his record on civil rights: She sharply questioned his opposition to busing programs in the 1970s and said that his recent remarks about cultivating working relationships with segregationist senators were “very hurtful.”
It was more evidence that Mr. Biden’s lengthy record — which contains episodes that now look controversial in this liberal era of the Democratic Party — can and will be aggressively re-litigated by his opponents. Some of them have previously been reluctant to draw direct contrasts with a former vice president who enjoys good will from many Democratic voters. Ms. Harris may have changed that on Thursday night.
Mr. Biden assertively defended his record, but he also made a false claim that he only opposed busing ordered by the Department of Education. He noted that he got into politics because of the civil rights movement and stressed his work on voting rights issues. He said he was a “public defender, I didn’t become a prosecutor” — an implicit jab at Ms. Harris, who was a prosecutor — and he nodded to his role as vice president to America’s first black president.
But he also appeared almost timid at times, raising his finger toward his face in a sign that he wanted to answer a question, but refraining from interjecting. Senator Bernie Sanders, too, at times raised his hand even as moderators turned to other candidates.
And in contrast to Ms. Harris and others onstage, Mr. Biden — typically one of the more loquacious candidates out there — also abruptly cut himself off when he saw the sign that he had run out of speaking time.
He didn’t crumble onstage or make any memorable gaffes. But the episode with Ms. Harris highlighted, in the most public way yet, some of Mr. Biden’s vulnerabilities.
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Harris stole the show — and the night.
It was the ten-word interjection that upended the trajectory of the night, if not the 2020 campaign so far.
“I would like to speak on the issue of race,” Ms. Harris declared.
The room soon went silent.
Ms. Harris turned to address Mr. Biden, directly and personally, marrying her own identity as an African-American woman with a pointed critique of not just his recent rhetoric about working with segregationists but what they worked on together. “You also worked with them to oppose busing,” she said. “And you know, there was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
Mr. Biden protested. “A mischaracterization of my position,” he said.
She pressed on, framing her follow-ups as the prosecutor she once was. “Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?”
In that raw and intense moment, Ms. Harris flashed the political potential that many Democrats believed she held yet had heretofore not been realized. And she did so while boldly taking on the leading Democratic in the race, Mr. Biden, whom many in the field have shied from confronting because of his residual popularity from eight years as Mr. Obama’s No. 2.
And it wasn’t even her only moment. Earlier, she had risen above the fray with the declaration amid cross talk that, “America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we are going to put food on the table.” Then, too, she silenced the room.
In her closing statement, Ms. Harris touted herself as the candidate to “prosecute the case” against Mr. Trump. Of course, by then she had already showcased those skills against Mr. Biden.
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Sanders’s ideas dominate, but he does not.
Mr. Sanders entered the debate as a top candidate in the polls and fund-raising, and there were big expectations he would use his stature to push his message of revolution and aggressively go after Mr. Biden.
But though many of the progressive policy ideas he has helped popularize dominated the night — most notably, universal health care — he at times got lost on stage, overshadowed in particular by Ms. Harris. He never really took a swipe at Mr. Biden, save near the end, striking a glancing blow when he contrasted his opposition to the Iraq war with Mr. Biden’s support for it. It’s a line he has used before though, and it hardly resonated after almost two hours of debating.
At times, Mr. Sanders appeared more than eager to jump in but got lost in the din. During an exchange about climate change, for instance, he could be seen on stage raising his hand as Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., spoke. But rather than turn to him, the moderators tossed it to John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado. When Mr. Sanders did speak, he largely repeated sections from his stump speech.
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Buttigieg almost survives the South Bend police question.
After the biggest political crisis of his campaign, Mr. Buttigieg was well-prepared to address the deadly police shooting of a black man there.
In an otherwise flat performance, Mr. Buttigieg delivered a thoughtful response that touched on the political challenge of his role as mayor, saying he’s “not allowed” to take sides until an investigation is complete to determine why the police officer involved did not have his body camera turned on.
“It’s a mess, and we’re hurting,” he said. “This is an issue that is facing our community and so many communities around the country. And until we move policing out from the shadow of systemic racism, whatever this particular incident teaches us, we will be left with the bigger problem of the fact that there is a wall of mistrust put up one racist act at a time.”
He didn’t get much breathing room before Representative Eric Swalwell of California, during a night spent tossing spitballs from the edge of the stage, demanded Mr. Buttigieg do something.
“If the camera wasn’t on and that was the policy, you should fire the chief,” Mr. Swalwell interjected.
Mr. Buttigieg demurred.
Mr. Swalwell pounced again.
“You’re the mayor and you should fire the chief if that’s the policy and someone died,” he said.
Marianne Williamson, a self-help author, then took the floor and changed the subject to reparations for slavery. Mr. Buttigieg made few waves thereafter.
It may be no country for moderate men.
The Democrats’ two nights of debates showed that liberalism is on the march in the party. All of the intellectual energy this week has been with the liberals, from Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plans Wednesday and Mr. Sanders’s ideas Thursday night.
The top moderate in the race, Mr. Biden, spent most of the debate fending off attacks from his left without offering a real critique of Mr. Sanders and others proposing eliminating private insurance markets, among other ideas.
Others in the party’s center-left wing — Senator Michael Bennet and former Gov. John Hickenlooper, both of Colorado — tried injecting themselves in the Thursday discussion about Mr. Sanders’s sweeping proposals but made little headway.
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The leftward shift was most evident on health care policy, which dominated the Thursday debate’s opening half-hour. Mr. Sanders along with Ms. Harris and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, committed to a single-payer Medicare-for-all system that four years ago was a vision embraced just by Mr. Sanders. All 10 candidates also endorsed allowing undocumented immigrants access to government health care programs.
Perhaps a steadier version of Mr. Biden could have made the case against such a massive transformation of the American health care system. Instead he fell back on a reliable crutch: tethering himself to the legacy of President Obama.
“I’m against any Democrat,” he said, “who wants to take down Obamacare.”
Who spoke the most?
Isabella Grullón Paz contributed reporting.