Halfway into the July 30 Democratic presidential debate, Elizabeth Warren was asked whether her declaration that she was a capitalist was meant to convince voters that she might be “a safer choice” than Bernie Sanders.

The Massachusetts Senator demurred, responding that it was “my way of talking about I know how to fight and I know how to win.”

She noted that she had won office by defeating a “popular Republican incumbent,” then added that she remembered when the conventional wisdom was that first Barack Obama and then Donald Trump “couldn’t get elected.”

That brought her around to the point that Mr. Sanders wasn’t the candidate foremost on her mind.

‘Need Candidate People Believe In’

“I get it,” she said on the stage in Detroit with nine other candidates, none of whom was her target at that moment. “There is a lot at stake, and people are scared. But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else. And we can’t ask other people to vote for a candidate we don’t believe in.”

In her oblique way, she was making a case against Joe Biden, whom a Quinnipiac University poll a day earlier indicated had re-emerged as the clear front-runner for the party’s nomination less than five weeks after Kamala Harris made him look tired and clumsy in a debate exchange about race and busing.

The former Vice President shortly after that debate had his once-imposing lead shaved to two points in a Quinnipiac survey, but the pollster’s July 29 results had him ahead by 19 points, and Ms. Warren had replaced Ms. Harris as his nearest pursuer.

The most logical explanation rested not on anything Mr. Biden had said or done since the first round of debates but on President Trump’s attempting to make his re-election bid a verbal race war with a series of Twitter eruptions suggesting that if four female Congress Members of color didn’t like the U.S., “they should go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

For the Trumpster’s purposes, it was irrelevant that three of the four women were born in the U.S. He was equating their criticism of him and some aspects of the U.S. with a lack of patriotism, and counting on his followers and some on-the-fence voters to forget that he was the guy who declared on live TV that he was more inclined to trust Vladimir Putin that Russia hadn’t meddled in the 2016 election than the American intelligence agencies that unanimously concluded it had.

The Quinnipiac poll had found that 51 percent of those it surveyed believed Mr. Biden had the best chance of unseating Mr. Trump, with Ms. Warren a distant second at 15 percent. And not incidentally, 51 percent of the respondents said they believed the President was a racist, with 45 percent disagreeing.

Put the results together, and it was reasonable to conclude that amid growing alarm about the President’s racial stylings and the positive reaction they got from his staunchest supporters, Mr. Biden’s resurgence was based on his being the equivalent of comfort food: a known quantity who seemed to have the best shot among the Democrats of peeling away a chunk of the disaffected voters who chose Mr. Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Ms. Warren’s implicit argument that this was a questionable basis on which to choose the party’s standard-bearer was seconded in somewhat different language late in the three-hour debate on CNN by Pete Buttigieg, who remarked, “we can have great Presidents at any age. What I will say is we need the kind of vision that’s going to win. We cannot have a vision that amounts to back to normal. Because the only reason we got this President is that normal didn’t work.”

The message both of them were conveying to the audience was that it would be a mistake to choose someone who was a mediocre candidate because he was likable, since he might fall apart once Mr. Trump began ruthlessly assailing him, aided by a seemingly bottomless war chest and media allies led by Fox News that would make no pretense of fairness in their coverage.

Calling Out Biden

They were also delivering a challenge to Mr. Biden himself: if you’ve got something to recommend you beyond a sunny personality and eight years as Mr. Obama’s Vice President, it’s time to bring it.

Aside from their digs at him—which got remarkably little attention in the media coverage prior to the following night’s debate, which again put Mr. Biden and Senator Harris together on stage—what was most notable about the opening-night skirmishing was the degree to which the Democratic hopefuls portrayed Mr. Trump as a racist.

They seemed to do it as a tag-team, starting in opening statements that expressed that theme without much overlap.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, “We come from a country of shared dreams, and I have had it with the racist attacks.”

Mr. Sanders declared, “We have got to take on Trump’s racism, his sexism, xenophobia and come together in an unprecedented grass-roots movement, to not only defeat Trump but to transform our economy and our government.”

The tenor didn’t change once they were facing off with each other. The most-scalding remarks came from self-help guru Marianne Williamson, who referred to the sluggish response by Republican officials in Flint, Michigan after a decision to save money by having that city get its water supply from the contaminated Flint River rather than Detroit’s municipal system produced major health problems.

“Flint is just the tip of the iceberg,” Ms. Williamson said. “We have an administration that has gutted the Clean Water Act.” Referring to an affluent, largely white suburb of Detroit, she continued, “I live in Grosse Pointe. What happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe. This is part of the dark underbelly of American society…The racism, the bigotry and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight—if you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark, psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this President is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid Democrats are gonna see some very dark days.”

‘Domestic Terrorism’

Ms. Warren’s imagery was less-graphic but in some ways more jarring. “We need to call out white supremacy for what it is: domestic terrorism,” she said, drawing cheers from the crowd in the Fox Theater. “And it poses a threat to the United States of America. We live in a country now where the President is advancing environmental racism, economic racism, criminal-justice racism, health-care racism.”

Mayor Buttigieg didn’t limit his critique to Mr. Trump, saying the candidates should also “take on his enablers in Congress. You know, when David Duke ran for Governor, the Republican Party 20 years ago ran away from him. Today they are supporting naked racism in the White House, or at best are silent about it.”

And ex-Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke contended that “hate crimes on the rise every single one of the last three years” was related to the President’s incendiary rhetoric going back to the 2016 campaign.

When Ms. Klobuchar was asked by CNN’s Don Lemon what she would tell voters who “prioritize the economy over the President’s bigotry,” she replied that “there are people that voted for Donald Trump before that aren’t racist; they just wanted a better shake in the economy…But I don’t think anyone can justify what this President is doing. Little kids literally woke up this weekend, turned on the TV, and saw their President calling their city, the town of Baltimore, nothing more than a home for rats” as part of his tweetstorm after Congressman Elijah Cummings criticized conditions for detainees at the Texas border.

Senator Klobuchar is considered one of the moderate Democrats in the field, representing a state that almost went for Mr. Trump three years ago. She has portrayed herself as steeped in Midwest values, a not-so-subtle reminder to voters that the 2016 election was decided largely in three states, two of them from that region. And so it was notable that she went after Mr. Trump that strongly, even while on other subjects joining with other moderates in the debate in questioning the positions taken by the two leading progressives, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders.

An Unrealistic Plan?

Regarding their championing of Medical for All, she said she believed “when we have a guy in the White House that has now told over 10,000 lies, that we better be very straightforward with the American people. And no, do I think that we are going to end up voting for a plan that kicks half of America off their current insurance in four years? No, I do not think we’re gonna do that.”

Maryland Congressman John Delaney, a former CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, was more caustic on the subject, saying, “I think Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises; when we run on things that are workable, not fairy-tale economics.”

Ms. Warren shot back, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for President of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

She and Mr. Sanders found themselves frequently targeted by more-moderate candidates looking to get some attention before the September debates for which the standards for qualifying in terms of poll standing and fund-raising will increase sharply.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who had been excluded from the initial June debates, noted that he had been re-elected in a state which Mr. Trump carried by 20 points because of his moderation and willingness to listen to political opponents. “The farmer getting hit right now by Trump’s trade wars, that Teacher working a second job just to afford her insulin, they can’t wait for a revolution,” he said in making the case that the programs championed by the Senators from Massachusetts and Vermont were politically unrealistic.

Mr. Delaney remarked, “Folks, we have a choice. We can go down the road that Senator Sanders and Senator Warren want to take us, which is with bad policies like Medicare for all, free everything and impossible promises that will turn off independent voters and get Trump re-elected,” just as he said occurred when Democrats nominated George McGovern in 1972, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988.

And former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper pointed out, “Last year, Democrats flipped 40 Republican seats in the House, and not one of those 40 Democrats supported the policies of our front-runners at center stage.”

Didn’t Change Their Tunes

Neither Mr. Sanders nor Ms. Warren yielded on their positions, with the Massachusetts Senator in particular trying to connect, characteristically, by spelling out the logic behind her plan to cover Medicare for All by taxing the wealthiest Americans on that portion of their net worth above $50 million. She told the audience that “our problems didn’t start with Donald Trump. Donald Trump is part of a corrupt, rigged system that has helped the wealthy and the well-connected and kicked dirt in the faces of everyone else.”

She was regarded as the clear winner of the Tuesday debate, setting the stage the following evening for whether Mr. Biden would show more life than he had five weeks earlier amid the verbal assaults that figured to come given his swift rebound in the Quinnipiac Poll.

They began with the very first speaker, Mayor de Blasio, who said, “Joe Biden told wealthy donors that nothing would fundamentally change if he was elected.” In contrast, continued the man who was still on the wrong side of 1 percent in the polls, if he was elected, “We will tax the hell out of the wealthy.”

Mr. Biden opened with his stump line: “I’m running for President to restore the soul of this country.” He pivoted to address Mr. Trump and his rallying cry against the four Congresswomen known as The Squad that if they didn’t like America, they should leave, declaring, “We are not gonna leave it, and we are certainly not going to leave it to you.”

He then took the fight to Senator Harris and her variation on Medicare for All that she plans to phase in over a 10-year period. Noting that it was likely to cost $3 trillion a year while gradually eliminating employer-based health insurance, and its full benefits would not have kicked in by the time she, presumably, completed her second term in office, the ex-Vice President said, “Anytime someone tells you you can get something good in 10 years, you should wonder why it’s gonna take 10 years.”

‘Obamacare is Working’

Mr. Biden favors an expansion of the Affordable Care Act that was the signature legislative achievement of President Obama, saying his plan would cost $750 billion a year, “Obamacare is working,” he said. Several candidates took issue with that claim—Mr. de Blasio said, “The folks I talk to say their health insurance isn’t working for them”—but they found themselves in the odd position of running down that and other policies of a President who remains universally liked within his party at a point when they are trying to make up ground on his Vice President.

And Senator Harris, who had shined in the Miami debate, quickly got an inkling of the climate change in Detroit when she noted that her Medicare for All plan had been endorsed by Mr. Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, for most of his two terms, including the period when the ACA was passed and implemented.

Hawaii U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard interjected that Ms. Sebelius now works for Medicare Advantage, a private provider that would profit if Ms. Harris’s plan was adopted.

The California Senator ignored that claim in favor of pointing out that Mr. Biden’s ACA expansion would leave 10 million Americans without health insurance. But she encountered more headwinds from the western part of the country when Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet critiqued her proposal by saying, “It doesn’t make sense to take away insurance from half the people in this room” while sharply raising taxes to pay for her version of Medicare for All.

Mr. de Blasio took her side, saying, “I don’t understand why Democrats on this stage are fear-mongering about universal health care. This should be the party that stands for universal health care, and say we’re not gonna stand for anything less.”

But Mr. Biden dismissed the Mayor’s criticism of his plan as “malarkey,” adding to both him and Ms. Harris, “I don’t know what math you do in New York, I don’t know what math you do in California…I have the only plan that limits insurance companies from charging unreasonable prices.”

Deportation Tangle

When Mr. Lemon pointed out that during the first two years of the Obama Administration, 800,000 undocumented immigrants were deported, the ex-President’s former Housing Secretary, Julian Castro, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker both tangled with Mr. Biden, who responded, “People should have to get in line. That’s the problem,” a position that in language, anyway, is in sync with Mr. Trump’s but is also consistent with what many Americans, including Democrats and independents, believe.

When Mr. de Blasio asked whether he had tried to persuade Mr. Obama to stop the deportations, Mr. Biden sidestepped by saying he was not going to disclose private conversations with his old boss. He added that it was the former President who created the Dreamers program to offer citizenship to those who were brought here illegally when they were children, then said, “To compare him to Donald Trump is, I think, absolutely bizarre.”

Mr. Booker laced into Mr. Biden for saying that he believed political asylum should be granted to anyone who came here and completed a Ph.D program, contending that this implied others were undeserving of asylum.

The former Vice President hit back by pointing out that Mr. Booker as Mayor of Newark had implemented a much-criticized stop-and-frisk program with the help of a former aide to Rudy Giuliani. Mr. Booker responded, “I inherited a Police Department with massive problems,” and turned a spotlight on anti-crime bills Mr. Biden had sponsored while a Delaware Senator, including a 1994 Clinton Administration-supported measure that has been blamed for policies of mass incarceration around the country that often targeted people of color.

“There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that tough-on-crime phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine,” Mr. Booker said.

When Mr. de Blasio, trying to shrug off criticism over the continued presence of Daniel Pantaleo as a cop five years after his role in Eric Garner’s death by asking what he did “to spur on the Justice Department” probe into possible civil-rights charges during his final two years as Vice President, Mr. Biden replied that the administration had pushed for the wide adoption of body cameras being worn by patrol cops.

Looking to deflect accusations of his having favored policies that are now seen as having been harmful to minorities, he said, “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was…and he chose me and said it was the best decision he made.”

Harris’s Past Attacked

Ms. Harris also found her past turned against her as opponents focused on her time as California Attorney General. Mr. Biden pointed out that during her tenure, Los Angeles and San Francisco had “two of the most-segregated school systems in the country,” yet she had not brought suit. And Congresswoman Gabbard said, “She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations” and accused her of withholding exculpatory evidence “that would have freed an innocent man from Death Row until the courts forced her to do so.”

The best Ms. Harris could offer in reply was, “My entire career I have been personally opposed to the death penalty.”

While far sharper than he had been during the Miami debate, there were moments when Mr. Biden faltered and had difficulty rebutting criticism by his opponents. Mr. Booker took issue with his pleading presidential privilege in declining to discuss areas where he might have disagreed with his former boss, saying, “You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and dodge it when it’s not.”

But on the whole, Mr. Biden got past the impression created by his problems in rebutting Ms. Harris during the first debate of being too old and unfocused to stand up under the grind of running for President, and eased concerns that he would be a sitting duck in a general election against Mr. Trump, notwithstanding his rapport with many of the white working- and middle-class voters who deserted Ms. Clinton in 2016.

He had stopped the bleeding—while his main antagonist, Ms. Harris, had absorbed a few punches that figured to slow her momentum—and he didn’t figure to lose much support before the next debate round Sept. 12 and 13 in Houston, if the Quinnipiac results just before this round were any indication. For the moment, anyway, that was enough.

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