WASHINGTON (AFP) – A wounded Joe Biden scrambled to defend his frontrunner status on Friday after getting pummeled over his record on race relations at a Democratic election debate, throwing the battle for the party’s nomination to challenge United States (US)President Donald Trump wide open.
Watching from Japan, where he was attending the G20 summit, Trump licked his chops as the 10 Democrats at the Thursday night debate in Miami veered sharply to the left on immigration, healthcare, taxes and the ever-emotional subject of gun ownership.
Biden, vice president under still highly popular ex-president Barack Obama, came in as the favourite, polling well ahead of Trump and all Democratic rivals.
But it was Kamala Harris, the only black woman in the 2020 race, who stole the show when she left 76-year-old Biden speechless by attacking his stance on civil rights issues. Harris, a senator and former attorney general of California, pinned down Biden on his past opposition to busing programmes that forced integration of segregated school systems in the 1970s.
Biden faltered in response, then cut himself off, saying: “My time is up.”
Although he was referring to the few seconds granted by moderators on the crowded debate stage, his words went viral on Twitter as a symbolic admission that he is a man of yesteryear in a party demanding radical change.
In a speech in Chicago on Friday, Biden highlighted his many contributions to civil rights, as well as the fact that he was deputy to America’s first black president.
“We all know that 30 seconds to 60 seconds on a campaign debate exchange can’t do justice to a lifetime commitment,” he said. However, he risked getting in further trouble with his phrasing about the need to give youngsters in disadvantaged black communities a chance when he said “that kid wearing the hoodie” could turn out to be a poet rather than a “gangbanger” – slang for gangster.
“This isn’t about a hoodie. It’s about a culture that sees a problem with a kid wearing a hoodie in the first place. Our nominee needs to have the language to talk about race in a far more constructive way,” Democratic hopeful Senator Cory Booker tweeted.
The radical spirit pulling the Democratic Party leftward was on full display both Thursday and in a similar debate held Wednesday, illustrating how a centrist like Biden may have trouble getting through the primaries.
“That’s the end of that race!” gloated Trump, after Harris, self-described socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, and Senator Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday, championed higher taxes, fewer immigration barriers and tighter firearms laws.
“All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first!?” Trump tweeted.
But it’s too early to say whether Biden, an affable but gaffe-prone figure, will see his big polling lead melt away.
The rough debate treatment, which also included Sanders recalling that Biden had voted for going to war in Iraq, could instead harden the former VP ahead of what will be a brutal battle with Trump.
“While Biden didn’t soar, we doubt he was fatally damaged by any of this,” veteran politics watcher Larry Sabato said in his post-debate analysis.
NBC, MSNBC and Spanish language Telemundo said that more than 18 million people watched the second debate, a record.
Whichever of the more than 20 Democratic contenders is finally chosen, he or she will then have to take on Trump, who has proven he will use everything from insults to made-up data to get his message across.
With her takedown of Biden, Harris, 54, emerged as someone not afraid to play tough.
In what could only have been a carefully rehearsed attack, drawing on all her experience as a courtroom prosecutor, she first disarmed Biden by saying she was sure he was no racist.
But then she began to question his history of opposition on the fraught issue of school busing.
In fact, busing was hugely controversial and not all opposition was motivated by wanting racial segregation. But Harris had clearly planned to score a point – and succeeded.