If night one of the Democratic presidential debates was a study in wonkery, night two was a show of theatrics.
One day after Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Julian Castro earned high praise from ThinkProgress readers for their performance at the first 2020 Democratic debate, the second night on Thursday belonged to Kamala Harris.
The California senator was pegged an early front-runner long before entering the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Her mix of experience as both a lawmaker and prosecutor, ability to deliver a speech — and yes, her diversity, as a woman who identifies as both African American and Asian American — had many political experts predicting she would be a favorite to capture the nomination and run against Donald Trump next November.
Early enthusiasm had not translated into enormous support in the polls heading into Thursday night’s debate. Though she has fared better than a gaggle of contenders who have failed to crack 1% in national polling averages, Harris has also lagged well behind the likes of former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and even South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Those three were on the debate stage Thursday night, yet it was Harris who seized the moment. For ThinkProgress readers who tuned into the debate and shared their thoughts with us, it was Harris who stood apart from the rest.
“Harris is going to get many people in her camp,” Joe Lawson told ThinkProgress as the debate was winding down. “I could be one.”
Harris put her fellow candidates and viewers at home on notice early on in the debate, during a particularly protracted shouting match that erupted when several other candidates talked over one another and the moderators. The California lawmaker calmly, yet forcefully interjected, simultaneously chastising her peers and redirecting the conversation back to policy matters.
“Kamala with the adult voice!” remarked Lawson via text message in that moment. “She gets her points across with passion and precision,” he added. In Miami, where the debate was being held, the audience applauded her loudly as well.
It wasn’t just her style that impressed ThinkProgress readers, it was the substance behind it as well.
“She is intelligent, thoughtful, prepared, is comfortable discussing policy, diverse, focuses on the impact to people, and not easily threatened,” said Gina Restivo of Harris’ performance. “I want Harris for our candidate.”
Harris’ exchange with Biden on the issue of race was perhaps the most noteworthy moment of the night, and for ThinkProgress readers, Harris clearly came out looking better than the former vice president.
“Biden clearly lost the exchange,” remarked Lee Lipps via text message. “However, it was such an overwhelming loss that she knocked him completely off his cool and confident demeanor all the way through his closing statement at the end.”
Though Harris clearly took pole position on the night, she wasn’t the only candidate to make a favorable impression on ThinkProgress readers.
Buttigieg, too, managed to capture the attention of several respondents, relying on his blend of smarts and his pleasing demeanor to win over some voters.
“Buttigieg greatly surpassed me with the quality of his answers, his demeanor, and his grasp of policy,” said Lipps.
One notable moment for the mayor came right at the midway point of the debate, when moderator Rachel Maddow pressed Buttigieg on his much-maligned handling of a recent police shooting of a black man in his hometown of South Bend.
“I thought his answer about his recent problems with the police in South Bend was particularly good,” said Lipps.
Restivo and fellow ThinkProgress member Richard Earl were also impressed with Buttigieg’s poise in responding to criticism.
“Mayor Pete is surprisingly honest about the issues or race and policing, especially in his city,” Earl told ThinkProgress. “Loved his honesty on the situation in Indiana,” offered Restivo.
Yet despite generally positive reviews for the 37-year-old mayor, ThinkProgress readers said they see him less as presidential material than as a strong choice for the bottom of the ticket.
“Can we please have Mayor Pete as Vice President!,” asked Lawson. “We need him! He can frame issues like nobody!” Restivo shared her ideal scenario: “Harris, and Pete Buttigieg as Vice President.”
Bernie Sanders was another candidate who received high marks from our members — at least on policy. “I like his ideas, but not him personally,” said Restivo.
Readers also gave Rep. Eric Swalwell recognition for a few good lines throughout the debate, but of the candidates outside the four front-runners, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made the best impression with our readers.
“The real star of this debate was Kirsten Gillibrand — she came out frequently, forcefully and intelligently,” said Earl at the end of the evening.
“Gillibrand started slowly I thought, but came on very strong at the end,” added Lipps. “I can envision her as a very strong candidate against he whose name shall not be spoken in a debate, and as a strong president.”