Democratic presidential hopeful former US Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami…
Democratic presidential hopeful former U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

WASHINGTON - In a sea of more than 20 candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, former vice president Joe Biden entered the second of two nights of early Democratic primary debates Thursday with a big bulls-eye on his back.

The front-runner before he even announced his candidacy, Biden was expected to ignore attacks from fellow Democrats as much as possible and to focus instead on challenging U.S. President Trump, trying to create the impression that the real race isn’t the primary at all, but an eventual Biden v. Trump showdown.

And from the get-go, that really did seem like Biden’s strategy. But as the former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson once observed, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Biden was repeatedly challenged on his record by his opponents and by moderators from television networks NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, which jointly hosted the event. His answers were often angry and defensive, even to attacks that he must certainly have known were coming.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Representative from California Eric Swalwell speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Passing the torch

During the two-hour debate in Miami, which shoehorned 10 candidates onto a single stage for the second night in a row, the first person to take a swing at Biden was California Rep. Eric Swalwell. The 38-year-old four-term congressman went after the 76-year-old former vice president over his age, pointing out that when Swalwell was 6 years old, in 1982, Biden had come to the California Democratic Convention as a presidential candidate and declared that it was time for America to pass the torch to a new generation.

Biden dodged the first attack deftly, parrying with comments about improving educational outcomes and cutting student debt.

However, it didn’t take long for the next blow to land.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for California Kamala Harris speaks to the press after the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Busing opposition

California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is African American, challenged Biden over his past opposition to integrating public schools through busing, as well as recent comments he made about his ability to strike deals with openly racist members of the U.S. Senate during his early days in Congress. (Biden had mentioned his ability to work with Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge and Mississippi Sen. James Eastland, both staunch segregationists from the distant past, as evidence that the Senate used to be a more “civil” place.)

“It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” Harris said. “And, you know, there was a little girl in California, who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools. And she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

Defensive, angry

If, coming into the debate, Biden had planned to rise above attacks on him, he abandoned that plan when Harris confronted him. He responded angrily, denying that he had praised Talmadge and Eastland — something Harris never claimed — and launching into a defense of his opposition to busing.

Only a few minutes later, Biden was challenged again, when moderator Chuck Todd asked about his recent assertion that, if he were elected, Republicans in Congress would drop their resistance to Democratic ideas and negotiate. Pointing out that President Barack Obama had made similar comments near the end of his first term, only to be proved wrong, Todd said, “It does sound as if you haven’t seen what’s been happening in the United States over the past 12 years.”

Again, Biden responded angrily, reciting a list of accomplishments during his vice presidency that involved cooperation with Republicans in Congress, including a deal that avoided a federal government default.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for Colorado Michael Bennet speaks in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

He was immediately blasted by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who pointed out that the deal he mentioned involved extending controversial Republican tax cuts indefinitely.

Later, Biden was challenged by moderator Rachel Maddow on his vote in favor of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Rather than defending his vote, he instead focused on his efforts, as vice president, to finally bring U.S. combat troops home, again sounding angry and defensive.

Campaign test

Thursday night was a major test for Biden, who has not campaigned for any office since 2012. He won re-election as a senator in 2008, at the same time that he was elected vice president. Biden has not run by himself on any ticket since 2002, 18 years before the election he is hoping to win next year.

Biden only announced his candidacy in late April, but for long before that he was the clear front-runner in the Democratic primary nomination. On May 4, one week after he officially announced his campaign, Biden held a dominant lead over the rest of the field, with 36.8% of the vote, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. His closest rival at the time, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, had less than half that support, at 16.4%.

Democratic presidential hopeful Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren participates in the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 26, 2019.

In the intervening months, much has changed. As of June 26, Biden’s support in the RCP average had dropped to 32%. Sanders had gained only a little, at 16.9%. But the big story was Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. At 8 percent a week after Biden announced, she had surged to 12.8% in the week before the first debates. Warren was the only one of the five highest-polling candidates to appear in the first debate.

In the final moments of Thursday’s debate, Biden did his best to move his focus back to President Trump, declaring that he wanted to “restore the soul” of the nation, which he said has been “ripped” out by the incumbent. 

If Thursday night demonstrated anything, though, it was that the former vice president’s opponents have no intention of allowing him to keep his focus on the current president. Or to remain comfortable at the top of the polls.