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A more aggressive tact from the former vice president didn’t stop the heat from coming his way at night two of the second presidential debate on Wednesday. But it did help him deflect at least some of the scrutiny, even as new fronts were opened up in a still-scattered nomination fight.
The two African American senators on either side of Biden on stage brought fresh fights to the polling front-runner, with issues of race close to the surface. They offered broad hints of what’s to come, in an increasingly urgent primary fight that is covering a broad range of issues and encompassing the concerns of a diverse array of candidates.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., laid responsibility for tough 1980s and 1990s sentencing laws – which have disproportionately impacted communities of color – at Biden’s feet.
“This is one of those instances where the house was set on fire and you claimed responsibility for those laws,” he told Biden. “And you can't just now come out with a plan to put out that fire.”
Biden hit back by invoking Booker’s record as mayor of Newark: “The Justice Department came after you for saying you were engaging in behavior that was inappropriate, and then in fact nothing happened.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., intensified her efforts to tag Biden over his previous work with segregationist senators.
“Had those segregationists had their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate, Cory Booker would not be a member of the United States Senate and President Obama would not have been in a position to nominate him to the title he holds,” Harris said.
But Harris faced new scrutiny on her own record on criminal justice. Biden called into question her time as attorney general of California, and other candidates piled on.
“Sen. Harris, when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people's lives, you did not,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii.
It was a policy-heavy and lively debate, encompassing issues from a wide array of perspectives. It was filled with landmines for Biden and Harris in particular.
Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., used his signature issue of climate change to hit Biden: “Middle ground solutions, like the vice president has proposed, or sort of average-sized things are not going to save us. Too little, too late is too dangerous.”
And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., confronted Biden over a decades-old position on child care tax credits, saying that he suggested that women working outside the home would “create the deterioration of family.”
“That was a long time ago,” Biden said, noting that his wife has long held her own job.
On immigration, several candidates, including Harris and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, stuck by their positions that border crossings should be decriminalized, under the argument that the policy has allowed President Donald Trump to separate migrant families at the border.
But Biden broke with them: “If you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It’s a crime.”
That got Castro – who made the issue a wedge at the last debate – to engage with the former vice president.
“It looks like one of us has learned from the lessons of the past and one of us hasn't,” Castro said. “We need to have some guts on this issue.”
Biden shot back: “I have guts enough to say his plan doesn’t make sense.”
Biden also put Harris on defense, suggesting that she has shifted her positions on health care to land on a muddled new policy. Biden used her new plan to phase in “Medicare for all” over 10 years as an opening to attack on a policy area where he has taken heat for being too timid.
“The senator had had several plans so far,” he said. “To be very blunt and to be very straightforward, you can't beat President Trump with double talk on this plan.”
Harris cast her plan differently, of course: “I needed to create a plan that was responsive to the needs of the American people,” she said. “I listened to American families.”
The debate came a night after a range of moderate Democrats openly warned that embracing progressive policies espoused by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., would lead the Democratic Party to likely defeat. Several candidates fretted that Trump was probably loving a second evening of party infighting.
“The person that's enjoying this debate most right now is Donald Trump,” Booker said of the squabbling over health care. “We pit Democrats against each other, while he is working right now to take away Americans' health care.”
Trump took his share of lumps: “The first thing that I'm going to do when I'm president is I'm going to Clorox the Oval Office,” Gillibrand said.
There’s a long way to go before anything like that happens. Biden joked with Harris at the top of the debate, as overheard on television mics: “Go easy on me, kid,” Biden told the 54-year-old California senator happen.
That did not and will not happen. But Biden recognized perceived weaknesses from the last debate and seemed better equipped to both defend his own record and attack his rivals.
Yet the backgrounds and policy positions of the leading Democrats remain target-rich environments. That offers opportunities to their fellow Democratic candidates – and, of course, Trump.