What the first Democratic debates tell us about the 2020 race

As the twenty Democrats who took part in the first pair of debates in the race for the White House spread around the country for more campaign stops this weekend, the shape of the race still seems to revolve around the same set of top tier Democratic candidates, with a host of others searching for a break through to fuel their own rise to the top.

While the first debate didn't seem to change the trajectory of the race, there was more of a discernible edge in the second debate, as Democratic front runner Joe Biden faced direct attacks for the first time in the 2020 race.

Biden's name wasn't mentioned one time on Wednesday night, but it was much different on Thursday, as several other Democrats went after Biden, with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) providing maybe the most memorable moment of the debate, when she challenged Biden on his legislative work regarding Civil Rights.

Here's where we stand in the Democratic race after this first debate:

1. The second debate certainly overshadowed the first.It didn't take long for the Thursday night debate to get the feel of a debate which a much bigger political impact. You could sense that in the press filing center - and others could feel it in front of their TV's as well. It reminded me of the GOP debates in 2015 when the 'pre-debate debate' would immediately be overshadowed by the top tier debate. Not only did Kamala Harris have a notable exchange with Joe Biden, but she also silenced the stage as Democrats were talking over each other at one point. "America does not want to witness a food fight," Harris said firmly. "They want to know how we are going to put food on the table."

2. Kamala Harris vs. Joe Biden. This was not Tulsi Gabbard tussling with Tim Ryan from the first night. There was much more of a significant feel as Harris weighed into Biden. Harris went out of her way to use a reference to race to go after the former Vice President, and his past legislative record about civil rights, as this was clearly the most electric moment of the two nights of the debate. No matter whether you think Harris got the better of Biden, or if Biden was able to parry her attack, it confirmed that Harris won't be shuffled back in the field after this first debate. This was how GOP pollster Frank Luntz saw it:

3. There are three clear tiers in the Democratic race.
The Democrats are obviously split up into very clear divisions - at the top is Biden, Sanders and Warren. Then comes Harris and Buttigieg, both of whom seemed to have good nights at this first debate. And after that, it's everyone else. The question is can anyone emerge from the pack down below, and push their way up into the conversation? Remember what we saw in the GOP race in 2012 and 2016 were dramatic swings at times, where individual candidates would quickly rise and fall. So far, we haven't seen anything like that with the Democrats, where the hierarchy has held in the polls for a number of weeks.

4. The Joe Biden questions. How did the former Vice President perform? Had he lost a step? Did he look slow? Was he out of practice? Biden had not been in a Democratic-only debate since he ran for President in 2008. He certainly demonstrated his command of the issues, and talked about his experience not only as Vice President, but also in the Senate. But he maybe also showed a little rust, as he ran himself into a verbal cul-de-sac on one answer, and abruptly stopped talking when his time was up. Biden is still the candidate to beat in the Democratic race - at least for now.  But there will be questions about him on the front pages of newspapers all around the country on Friday.

5. 10 candidates on a debate stage is just too many. The Republican debates suffered in 2015 and 2016 with an overabundance of candidates. In the first Democratic debate, Jay Inslee spoke for a total of five minutes, the least of any of the ten candidates. Andrew Yang did even worse in the second, with just under three minutes. Joe Biden had over 13 minutes in the second debate, while Cory Booker spoke for almost 11 minutes, which was the most in the first debate.

Here's the breakdown from both nights.

6. The next debate is in just over a month. Democrats will hold another two night debate in Detroit on July 30-31, which will again likely have ten participants on state in successive nights. The debate criteria get stricter starting with the third debate in September, which is to be hosted by ABC News. The winnowing process is already under way, even if some of the Democrats on the debate stage this week don't want to admit that.

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