After his shaky performance in the first Democratic debate in Miami, Joe Biden is getting another chance on Wednesday night to prove that he can command the mantle of front-runner as he continues to lead in the polls.
Many voters who had high expectations for Biden were caught off guard by his performance during the first matchup last month. The key moment of that evening came when California Sen. Kamala Harris attacked his record opposing busing to desegregate schools decades ago and Biden seemed completely unprepared to defend his history, fumbling for an answer and then essentially conceding the point by telling the moderators his time was up.
Biden seemed to be well-aware that Harris and other candidates on stage would be looking to target him. As Harris walked out on stage during introductions, Biden greeted her with a smile and a handshake.
“Go easy on me, kid,” he said as Harris chuckled.
Biden has rebounded in the polls, but many Democratic voters across the country have told CNN reporters in recent interviews they are concerned that the former Delaware senator does not seem as sure-footed as he did a few years ago when he was serving as Barack Obama’s vice president.
A number of them said Biden sounds too soft-spoken, that he is not energetic enough and that they are worried about whether he will be able to take the fight to President Donald Trump.
In the days and hours leading up to Wednesday’s showdown in Detroit, Biden advisers telegraphed that Americans will see a much livelier Biden. Since that mediocre first performance, he has sharpened his attacks on Harris on the campaign trail — noting, for example, that she essentially shares his position on busing and accusing her of shifting her position repeatedly on health care.
In a pre-debate briefing, Biden advisers said he was ready to defend his record on the debate stage and would not allow it to be “taken out of context.” He has realized, one senior adviser told reporters, that “there are no rules of engagement, that people are not going to stick to the facts and that they are willing to mischaracterize” his record.
As in the first CNN debate in Detroit on Tuesday night, health care is expected to be a main topic of the event — in part because Biden vigorously disagrees with Harris on her push for “Medicare for All.” He has said he is concerned that that the quality of Medicare could diminish if all Americans were moved into that system. Instead, he favors building on the Obamacare system and moving toward universal coverage one piece at a time.
His views may have particular resonance here in Michigan, where thousands of union workers fought for many years to get their health care benefits and have little interest in seeing the private insurance industry phased out. That phase-out would happen over 10 years under the Harris plan and over four years under the plan of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, which Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren also supports.
While many of the moderate candidates were on the attack on the most progressive candidates — Sanders and Warren — during Tuesday night’s debate, Biden is likely to be the main target on stage Wednesday.
The stage will show the diversity of the Democratic field and also the generational differences among the candidates. Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, for example, have argued for a new generation of leaders who better reflect the diversity of the Democratic Party.
Booker, who is hoping for a breakout performance to help him move from the bottom of the pack toward the top tier of contenders, has signaled that he will be trying to show Wednesday night that it is time for fresh leadership and new ideas. Booker’s camp has signaled he’ll plan to target Biden as well, having previously gone after the vice president over his stances on racial issues and criminal justice.
Also on the stage on Wednesday will be Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and businessman Andrew Yang