Confronting Democratic front-runner over racial issues gives California senator a starring role in the second debate
Sen. Kamala Harris proved she can command a debate stage by confronting former Vice President Joe Biden over questions of racial equality in a strong performance that could boost her standing in the crowded Democratic nomination contest.
Heading into the second of two debates this week in Miami, most expected Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to be Mr. Biden’s top tormentor. Instead, it was a fiery Ms. Harris who displayed her skills Thursday as a former prosecutor in challenging the front-runner.
The Harris-Biden exchange was the most dramatic during four hours of debate that featured 20 of the 24 candidates competing for the nomination. The sessions also made clear the Democratic Party has moved significantly to the left since Mr. Biden’s tenure in office ended.
On health care, taxes, climate change, immigration and gun control the majority of those in the debates called for ambitious and potentially costly programs often rooted in greater government involvement. It’s an approach more aggressive than the one espoused by the past two Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
The shift is raising questions about whether the more moderate Mr. Biden is a good fit for a party in which much of the policy agenda driving the primary is coming from activists and candidates on the left. In the debate, he largely managed to avoid the sort of missteps and unforced errors that have tripped him up on the campaign trail in recent weeks—but his exchange with Ms. Harris left a mark.
Ms. Harris, a former California attorney general and local prosecutor who is black, went out of her way to confront Mr. Biden and generate a high-profile moment for herself. She labeled as “hurtful” statements he had recently made about working in Washington with two now-deceased segregationist senators.
“It’s a mischaracterizations of my position across the board,” Mr. Biden responded. “I did not praise racists. That is not true.”
Ms. Harris, who has struggled to gain much traction in the polls, also questioned his opposition to federally ordered school busing during the 1970s, noting that she was affected by those policies as a “little girl in California.”
Mr. Biden defended his position, explaining that at the time he felt it was a decision that should be made at the local level. But his performance quickly drew critics.
“The exchange between Senator Harris and Vice President Biden demonstrates that Biden needs to address the growing questions about his record on racial justice issues,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of the progressive BlackPAC. “It’s probably time for him to deliver a major policy speech to explain his past problematic position and talk about his evolution and vision for the future on the central issues concerning black voters.”
In her closing statement, Ms. Harris suggested her experience as a prosecutor could be helpful in debating and beating President Trump. But that part of her résumé also carries risks, because some critics on the left have said she was too tough during her tenure.
The debate was filled with interruptions, crosstalk between candidates and a disregard for the time limits. The combative tone was the result of desperation for some of the lesser-polling candidates who face a second-quarter fundraising deadline Sunday that will deliver more clarity on the viability of some in the field.
Mr. Trump and his political team view Mr. Biden as their strongest potential foe. So the Harris-Biden exchange, in particular, drew a gleeful response from Brad Parscale, the manager of the Trump re-election campaign.