WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After two sets of Democratic presidential debates, it appears that Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, at least at the moment, are two high-speed trains on a collision course.
Biden, the former vice president, likely did enough at Wednesday’s debate in Detroit to ease concerns among supporters that his front-runner status was in immediate danger after his underwhelming performance in the first debate in June.
This time around, he mounted a more combative defence of his centrist candidacy, defending his long record in government and his work with former President Barack Obama, who remains immensely popular with Democrats more than two years since leaving office.
Biden, 76, battled a wave of critics on the Detroit stage, from U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris to former Housing Secretary Julian Castro and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, emerging relatively unbloodied.
There were no resonant moments that resembled Harris’ blistering attack over his civil rights record in the first debate in Miami, political analysts and Biden aides said.
“The question going into the debate was could the vice president take a hit, would he punch back, can he be strong, can he fight back against Donald Trump? And the answer was an unequivocal yes,” Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Biden, told reporters after the debate.
Democrats will hold a series of nominating contests beginning next February to determine their party’s nominee to battle the Republican Trump in the November 2020 general election.
Warren, a U.S senator from Massachusetts who has been gaining in opinion polls, turned in an assured and defiant performance in Tuesday’s debate, forcefully responding to moderate critics who charged her plans were too sweeping and expensive.
In a reversal on Wednesday, Biden’s moderate record was repeatedly questioned by progressives on the stage.
At one point, Biden called the criticism “a bunch of malarkey.”
Both nights made clear that the ideological divide that is fissuring the Democratic Party will not soon be closed - and that voters may soon have to choose a side as the field begins to narrow in the coming months.
Warren, along with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, exemplifies the leftward wing of the party, while Biden currently owns its centre lane.
Biden and Warren have yet to share a debate stage — and with no debate scheduled until September, the race is likely to be relatively stable in the coming weeks.
Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, said Biden was effective in defending against attacks by Harris and others on Obama’s signature healthcare achievement, the Affordable Care Act, and other parts of the Obama administration’s record. “That seems to be a comfortable place to be,” Kondik said.
Kondik said some pundits had been premature in declaring Warren’s and Sanders’ supremacy over the moderates of the party after Tuesday’s debate. “That ignored the fact that Biden wasn’t on stage and is the clear polling leader at this point.”
A Quinnipiac University poll released this week showed Biden had largely recovered ground he lost after his debate flap with Harris. He held 34 percent of the Democratic vote, with Warren behind at 15 percent. Other recent polls have given Biden a sizeable lead, with either Warren or Sanders second.
Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist who worked for former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, said that the two debates this week had laid out a stark choice for Democratic primary voters.
“If you doubt that Democrats can defeat Donald Trump on a progressive agenda, then Biden is going to continue to have a pretty strong lead,” Payne said. “But if you feel like Democrats need to go big and bold and push the envelope with a transformative new agenda, I think it’s pretty clear where you are going - to the left flank of the party and choose from the Sanders/Warren wing.”
What that means for candidates who are attempting to straddle the middle ground between the two poles, such as Harris, Booker and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, remains to be seen.
Harris appeared to struggle at times on Wednesday reconciling her progressive policy stances with her record as California’s attorney general and may have sapped any momentum her campaign received from her skirmish with Biden in June.
Booker at the debate preached party unity, but then attacked Biden over his criminal justice policies while a U.S. senator. Buttigieg has shown himself to be a prolific fundraiser and skilled debater, but his support in the polls appears to be levelling off.
Trump has said he believes Biden will be the Democratic nominee and his campaign targeted him throughout the evening in a series of statements that slammed Biden on foreign policy, trade and abortion.
Payne said that Trump’s recent conduct – telling a group of minority congresswomen to “go back” to their home countries and ripping the district of a black congressman – may have played into Biden’s hands ahead of the debate.
The more outrageous Trump’s actions, Payne contended, the more Democratic voters were likely to prioritize finding a candidate who can beat him over progressive structural reforms.
“You can draw a straight line between Trump being unsteady and erratic and people clinging more to Joe Biden,” Payne said. “‘Uncle Joe’ is the safety blanket that many Democratic voters will continue to lean on as long as they view Donald Trump as the existential threat.”
(This story was refiled to fix date of first debate in paragraphs 2, 21)
Reporting by James Oliphant; Additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw in Detroit and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Cooney